“Being a warrior without a war has its problems.”
The Great Santini is based on the Pat Conroy novel dealing with the real life relationship between the author and his father, Donald Conroy, a marine pilot who referred to himself as the Great Santini after a magician he saw when he was a small child. The book and movie opened up Donald’s eyes as to how he treated his family, and resulted in the elder Conroy being able to mend fences with his son. The movie was originally a direct release to cable and commercial airlines, then when the New York Times reviewed it favorably it was released in theaters. And the rest as they say is history.
Lt. Colonel Wilbur “Bull” Meechum (Robert Duvall, Apocalypse Now), is a hard-ass marine pilot in the waning years of a career. As his son Ben (Michael O’Keefe, Caddyshack) turns 18, the two men try to come to terms with their rocky relationship, as the younger Meechum is more and more convinced that he does not want to follow in his father’s very large footsteps.
Robert Duvall is one of my favorite actors, and how I’d gone this long without ever seeing The Great Santini is a mystery even to me. Unfortunately, the film was not what I had hoped for, and in truth was a bit of a letdown. In what seems to be a trend for me, I keep getting films that have been considered classics since the earth has cooled, and then I come along and dare to disagree. Let me preface this review by saying I did like The Great Santini, it is a film that has moments of brilliance, just not enough of them. The main problems are the many throw away scenes, coupled with an ending that seems hurried and unfinished. Now, you’re probably saying to yourself, “I thought she said she liked this movie?” I do dear reader, I do; I’m just disappointed because this could’ve been a great film, and ends up being an almost forgettable movie going experience.
The Great Santini takes place in 1962, and opens with an excruciatingly long flight training sequence with Meechum and a few of his marine pilot buddies. Who knows what’s going on or who these other pilots are, but more importantly, who cares? It’s just footage that looks as if it is thrown in to make sure we know that Bull Meechum is a Marine Pilot — okay, I get it! I tuned out after about five minutes of this documentary-like footage. And it’s scenes like this that hurt the film, scenes that are not critical to the story, and only distract from this relational tale of a self-centered and conflicted man and the family that suffers under his brutal personality.
This isn’t a war movie, so if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll be more disappointed than I was. Sure Bull is a marine, but the film’s focus is on Meechum and his relationship with his newly adult son, Ben. Duvall is amazing of course, a natural actor who convinces you he is this hard as nails marine who treats his son as an extension of himself. Michael O’Keefe stands toe-to-toe with the veteran, and it amazes me that this guy has never been in the cream of the crop of Hollywood actors; his performance is spot on. Blythe Danner (Meet the Parents) plays Meechum’s long suffering wife, Lillian, who excuses her husband’s bullying behavior no matter how he treats her and his family. She’s fine, but this is not a role that will stay with you once the movie has ended.
The first half of The Great Santini is a fairly solid film, except for an endless opening sequence and other pointless scenes, such with Meechum getting drunk and ruining the dinner of a Naval officer, or one where he meets with his newly appointed commanding officer who hates him. These forgettable moments take up valuable time that could’ve been better spent on more important storylines. One such plotline involves Ben and his friend Toomer Smalls, played by Stan Shaw (Rocky), one of those underrated character actors who always performs solidly and is often overlooked. Ben and Toomer’s friendship is so strong that in order to help his friend, Ben disobeys a “direct order” from his boorish dad for the very first time in his life. However, why this friendship is so important that Ben would defy his father is never really explored, and just as quickly as it begins it is done away with and forgotten.
Then there’s the ending: a drippy predictable gooey conclusion that seems like the cowards way out for either the filmmakers or Conroy himself. After a gut wrenching scene with Ben and Bull — one in which the elder Meechum breaks down in tears — the story careens into a been there, done that sappy ending that shows Bull Meecham in a sympathetic light he doesn’t deserve. With a few well-placed edits, and more emphasis on Bull and Ben, this could’ve been a much better film. Instead we never get to know what makes either of these characters tick (like why was this Santini magician so important to Bull that he assumes his moniker?), and as the credits rolled I couldn’t help but feel a bit cheated.
Watching Duvall and O’Keefe, it’s easy to see why these two were nominated for Academy Awards. It’s also easy to see why the film itself didn’t get a nomination. The Great Santini is a mixed bag that in the end is still worth watching because of the performances of Duvall and O’Keefe, but it really shouldn’t be included on anyone’s list of great films.
The 1.85:1 widescreen presentation gives the viewers a crisp and clean image, and considering the film was made in the late seventies, it is a fine DVD transfer. The Dolby stereo audio makes for an easy listening experience. The previous DVD release of The Great Santini was in 1999, that version had subtitles and an interactive menu which allowed you to select specific scenes. This time around the DVD contains none of that, just the film’s original trailer. Not sure what the point is of this re-release. Was there really someone clamoring for a more stripped down version of the previous one? But it is fitting considering how ho-hum this adaptation of Pat Conroy’s autobiographical novel is.
I wanted to see this film for years, and was very excited to review it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all it could’ve been. I still dig me some Robert Duvall, and at least this film wasn’t as mind numbingly bad as Seven Days in Utopia. For that I am grateful, and unlike that other film, I am able to recommend The Great Santini to the Verdict faithful.
Semper Fi to Duvall and O’Keefe, but the film gets a Meh.
The Great Santini (DVD)
2013, Warner Bros., 116 minutes, PG (1979)
VIDEO: 1.85:1 AUDIO: Dolby Digital 2.0 (English) SUBTITLES: None
EXTRAS: Trailer ACCOMPLICES: IMDB