The Great Santini (1979)


Written and Directed by Lewis John Carlino (based on the Pat Conroy novel)

Starring: Robert Duvall, Blythe Danner, Michael O’Keefe, Lisa Jane Persky, Stan Shaw

Tagline: The Greatest Thing He Would Ever Was Let his Family Love Him

Trivia: Author Pat Conroy based “The Great Santini” character on his own father.

Set in the early 1960s,  The Great Santini tells the story of a military family with an overbearing patriarch.  Robert Duvall delivered an Oscar nominated performance as a Marine pilot determined to make a man out of his son Ben (Michael O’Keefe).  Despite some flaws in the dramatic structure, the film offers a compelling examination of masculinity during the Cold War era.

The story begins with the Meechum family arriving at their new home in South Carolina.  Lt. Colonel William “Bull” Meechum is a gung ho pilot, but his impulsive nature alienates his superiors and prevents him from moving up the ranks.  At home he’s strict and moody, forcing his family to get up at 3am to go on trips or blow up when anyone challenges his authority. Blythe Danner plays Bull’s saintly wife Lillian who puts up with his outbursts.  During a crucial scene he flips out after his Ben bests him in a basketball game.  Ben takes his Dad’s constant badgering in stride, but eventually gets pushed to the limit.

Another subplot involves Ben’s friendship with a local African-American man Toomer (Shaw).  While Shaw delivers a good performance, the story takes away from the central narrative, as if the director wanted to squeeze in a history lesson on the Civil Rights Movement.  Furthermore, this part of the film ends in such an over the top way – and is then quickly forgotten!

The reason to watch The Great Santini is for the performances, watching these actors work together.  In all honesty there’s a Made For TV feeling to it, a string of loosely connected melodramatic scenes.  The commentary on masculinity values, how boys are encouraged to repress their emotions, makes The Great Santini a case study in Cold War masculinity. Like Ben we despise the ways of Bull at times, they are crude and stupid. During a basketball his actions are especially inappropriate. Yet Bull also displays moments of wisdom and tenderness, making him more of a sympathetic figure. Was Duvall playing the same character in Apocalypse Now?


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