Movie Reviews

Movie Review: The Great Santini – The “Good Old Days” Weren’t Always That Good

Written by Pat Conroy and Lewis John Carlino
Directed by Lewis John Carlino

In all the performances I’ve seen Robert Duvall in over the years, perhaps the most memorable for me was The Great Santini. I saw it more than thirty years ago for the first time and remembered almost the entire plot for all these years.

Robert Duvall is a Marine pilot known as “The Great Santini”, Lt. Colonel Bull Meechum. It’s 1962 and he returns from overseas deployment and brings his family to a new town. He tries to run his family like the corps but has a harder time with his children than with his men.

In many ways, he hasn’t grown up. He always has to win with his kids when they play games. When his son, Ben (portrayed by Michael O‘Keefe), beats him fairly at basketball, Bull changes the rules and yells at his family. He can’t handle being beaten. Everything comes back to him. When Ben makes the varsity team, Bull’s response is “Of course you did, you only had the greatest coach in the world.”

Santini is a great pilot, so he gets away with more than his fair share of “antics”. However, it slips at one point that he is passed over for promotion because of his track record. He’s driven beyond anything to be the hero, the only problem is that there’s no war currently going on. To try to be the hero, he attempts to use the same tactics on his family he would on his men, and doesn’t understand why he’s not a hero to them.

One of the best contrasts between the character is shown at the beginning of the film when Meechum is seen out with his buddies in a bar in Spain. The buddy-buddy relationship he has here with his men is the one he strives to have with his son, only he doesn’t know how to go about it. His daughter Mary Ann (portrayed by Lisa Jane Persky) craves attention from her father as she sees him only paying attention to her older brother who can follow in his footsteps.

Ben is coming of age and rebelling against his father’s plans for him. He forms a bond with the son of their maid, Toomer (portrayed by Stan Shaw). The unlikely friendship is what sparks Ben to finally stand up to his father.

The acting is superb and really is what makes the film. Robert Duvall gives one of the finest performances of his career as Bull Meechum. It’s obvious he doesn’t know how to relate to his family. He bullies them and verbally abuses them, all the while not understanding the long-lasting damage he’s inflicting upon them. At the same time, I found myself rooting for him to be different and do what he could to cultivate a relationship with his family. He’s not a deliberately bad guy, he just doesn’t know how to be what many of us would call a “loving” father and husband. Duvall gives Meechum the intensity needed for the part to convey his complete ignorance that he’s doing anything wrong. This is just the way he knows how to be and he doesn’t see anything wrong with it and doesn’t understand what the problem is with his family.

Blythe Danner is more than superb as his long-suffering wife. She suffers abuse most definitely of the verbal kind and at one point it even turns physical, all the while holding the family together and trying to please her husband. Danner pulls it off with a quiet intensity that bridges the gap between the military world of Bull Meechum and his family. She’s used to the military life and resigned to what has to be, but it seems as if she accepts it as her lot in life. She doesn’t fight it and tries to keep the peace; she makes excuses for her husband’s bad behavior and tries to counsel Ben not to hate him too much.

Michael O’Keefe gives a fine performance here. If you don’t think you know the name, you probably know the face. He’s been in such movies as Caddyshack and Ghosts of Mississippi as well as television shows like Roseanne. His performance is terrific as he attempts to reconcile his own feelings and desires with that of his father. One of the best scenes is following a basketball game where he must face the damage he’s caused. It wasn’t what he wanted to do, but he was trying to do what his father wanted and in the process managed to alienate just about everyone else.

The military scenes are great as an accurate depiction of the contrast between military and civilian life. What doesn’t fly are some of the effects. It’s very obvious when Duvall is shown in the cockpit of his plane that it’s being shot against a blue screen or that his close-up is done in the studio. The Great Santini was released in 1979 and could have had better effects for the time.

This is a great film that’s a cross between a slice-of-life and a family drama. If you have never seen it, I strongly advise you to check it out sometime soon. The story is terrific and moves along nicely. It dragged slightly during the statement about the lousy state of race relations at the time in the South, but it did serve to make the picture more of a depiction of the times rather than of one abusive military father. This wasn’t a good time to be a minority or a woman, and that statement is made without hitting the viewer over the head with it.

2 replies »

  1. I have to admit….I had a crush on Blythe Danner when I saw her as a guest star on the long-running CBS comedy/drama “M*A*S*H.” She was sexy to me not just because she was blonde-and-blue-eyed pretty, but because her character (one of the few women Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce truly falls in love with on the show) was smart, funny, and sensitive.

    As for the special effects looking “cheap,” the movie wasn’t financed by a major studio, nor was it directed by a “name” director like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, or George Lucas. It was produced by Bing Crosby Productions, the same company that produced “Hogan’s Heroes” for TV back in the day. I don’t think the company had an in-house visual effects company, and I doubt that Orion Pictures and Warner Bros. (the distributors) saw the film as anything more than a small drama, and they didn’t feel investing tons of money into a movie that wasn’t likely to be a box office champion was a wise move.

    As it turns out, director Lewis John Carlino (who would only direct one more film (1983’s “Class”) did a wonderful job with what resources the production got, but the film only made $4 million at the box office.