Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.
Movies like The Great Santini are difficult for me to watch. This has nothing to do with the events of the film and everything to do with the story that is presented on screen. The Great Santini is less a film with a plot and more the story of the relationship between a man and his son, a relationship that is nothing but issues and problems and emotional abuse. I don’t have an issue with that at all. The problem is that the film seems all over the place. It’s all about this relationship, but at the same time, it tells that story not with rising action or a building plot, but a series of not-well-connected events that are essentially just slices out of a year of their life. It’s so disconnected from itself that I had trouble with where it was going.
Lieutenant Commander “Bull” Meechum (Robert Duvall), known as The Great Santini to his fellow Marine jet pilots, is a top pilot but also a discipline problem, a drunk, and emotionally stunted. He and his family are transferred to Beaufort, South Carolina in the years between the Korean and Vietnam War. The film follows most of that year, giving us as much of Santini as we can handle.
It’s quickly evident that in addition to his other problems, Bull Meechum runs his house like a military camp. His four children—Ben (Michael O’Keefe, who was nominated for a supporting performance), Mary Anne (Lisa Jane Persky), Karen (Julie Anne Haddock), and Mathew (Brian Andrews)—are expected to excel in everything, including athletics regardless of their proclivity or desire to participate. This is a real issue for the more intellectual Mary Anne. But it’s oldest son Ben who bears the brunt of Bull’s anger, wrath, and scorn. Long-suffering wife Lillian (Blythe Danner, who was inexplicably ignored come Oscar time) deals with Bull’s behavior and personal brutality as best she can.
The Great Santini is at its best when it focuses on the relationship between Bull and Ben. There are several key scenes that highlight this relationship and tell us everything we need to know. The first, and to my mind most important takes place relatively early in the film. Ben, as it happens, is a star of the high school basketball team, but is constantly forced to play against his father in one-on-one games in the backyard, games that he never wins because Bull refuses to play fair. However, on this occasion, Ben wins, which causes what can only be called a tantrum in his father. The final important scene regarding this relationship happens near the end, when Ben is forced to go hunting through the town for his father, who has gone on another drinking binge.
Where the movie loses the plot are the places where it literally loses the plot and we spend time with minor stories that require a great deal of build up to eventually work their way back to the relationship between Bull and Ben. The most obvious example of this is the large subplot involving Toomer Smalls (the vastly underrated Stan Shaw) and local racist Red Petus (David Keith in his big screen debut). Toomer and Ben become friends, but Toomer runs afoul of Red, which causes a violent confrontation between the two of them. All of this appears to happen specifically because it allows us to have another moment where Bull and Ben butt heads and Ben gets a little more emotional abuse.
While the story is a mess, the movie itself turns on the three main performances of Duval, O’Keefe, and Danner. All three of them are in top form here, particularly Duvall who has never been better, but has sometimes been this good (The Apostle comes to mind). Duvall rarely gives a performance that isn’t compelling, and this one ranks as one of his best. Bull Meechum is a hateful, bullying bastard, and I can’t think of anyone around at this time that could have played him as well. Robert Mitchum could’ve done it 30 years earlier, though.
Michael O’Keefe went on after this to do Caddyshack, which is still the film that he’s best known for. There are a couple of rough moments in his performance, but it’s overall one of the best of his long career. As for Blythe Danner, she walks a careful line here between being a woman capable of standing up for her man and the type of emotionally battered spouse who rationalized that everything that happens to her is at least partially her own fault. It’s a thankless performance, and it’s beautiful to see.
The biggest issue with The Great Santini is that so much of it feels unresolved. The situation with Toomer and Red, for instance, gives us a great moment where Ben stands up to his father, but we never really learn what happens to the town or anyone else after this sudden spate of racial violence. It’s simply brushed aside because it doesn’t have anything to do with our main characters, so as soon as their moment happens, it becomes unimportant.
This is a good movie but not a great one. The performances, though, really are pretty great.
Why to watch The Great Santini: Three powerful performances.
Why not to watch: The story is all over the place.