by Sam Juliano
This is a continuation of a long dormant series that will examine films from the 1970′s and 1980’s that were either forgotten, undervalued or misunderstood at the time of their release, but now seen in a far better light by critics and/or audiences.
Originally shown on HBO under the title The Ace in early 1979, what was originally seen as a conventional television drama, eventually morphed into a big-screen release re-titled to conform with the novel that spawned it. Indeed, Pat Conroy’s autobiographical The Great Santini was an acclaimed work that expanded on an eulogy given for his own father, one that bluntly asserted that “the children of fighter pilots tell different stories than other kids do.” But unexpectedly, and with little initial fanfare, it gave celebrated actor Robert Duvall one of the best roles of his career, one that brought him an Academy Award nomination in the year that Robert DeNiro prevailed for Raging Bull. Duvall’s electrifying macho turn as “Bull Meechum”, a marine-training pilot, who works out of Beauford, South Carolina in 1962 is a wholly charismatic portrayal that play’s to the actor’s strengths. Meechum’s war-time sensibility is hardly attuned to peace time domesticity, and with a ferocious rage he treats the members of his family as if they were recruits for an exacting even oppressive commando training. Yet, he’s an inveterate drinker and practical joker, one who’s as adverse to protocol as he is for strict enforcement of rules in the dictatorial management of his household. But Bull Meachum is no kin to the inhuman characters portrayed by Lee Emery in Full Metal Jacket nor Mark Metcalf as cadet commander Doug Niedermeyer in Animal House. He’s painted by Conroy and director Lewis John Carlino as a larger-than-life mountain of hubris and twisted priority, a flawed character whose inner sensitivity is hidden behind a facade of misguided self-assurance and inflated bravado, one who calls everyone “sports fan,” issues “direct orders” and fully expects to be addressed as “Sir” at all times. He’s a slightly altered variation of Duvall’s own Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore from Apocalypse Now.
While Bull is the patriarch of a family of six, the film is basically a dramatic triangle with the wife Lillian, (Blythe Danner) a loving Southern belle who is deeply in love with Bull, and oldest son Ben, an 18 year-old who is torn by familial love for a father he is simultaneously proud and fearful of, and hatred for his cruelty and narcissistic expectation of what he wants and respects his son to be. In another Oscar nominated performance the young Michael O’Keefe, who won the role after he held his own with Duvall in two major emotional scenes, gives a portrayal of deep sensitivity, evincing character traits clearly inherited from his mother. But the young man is establishing his own personality and identity, and through some painful life lessons he finally forges his own path through crisis and tragedy. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes Duvall confronts Ben after the latter defeats him in a game of one-on-one basketball, following him up the stairs in the house, demanding a rematch and repeatedly bouncing the ball off the young man’s head while calling him “my sweetest little girl.” When Ben tears up, Bull implores him to “squirt a few” and sarcastically intones “Ya gonna cry now.” It’s clearly a metaphor for the ugly competitiveness that the father equates with becoming a man, and of how to sustain a military ethic in everyday life. It’s also a rejection of the young man’s kind hearted nature and an attempt to instill in him the macho fury of a man. In another unforgettable and poignant sequence Ben is unceremoniously awakened by Bull in the middle of the night on his eighteenth birthday for the purpose of giving the young man the gift of the marine’s World War II army jacket. Bull attempts to move Ben with stories of the day he was born, and of remembering his wife as “prettier than I’ve ever seen her.” The next day father convinces the initially reluctant son to accompany him to the officer’s club, where Ben is liquored up to extreme intoxication.
The Great Santini is at it’s best when it explores the potentially eruptive feelings that are often held in check, and when it examines the awkward dynamic that springs from disparate agendas. In one funny scene the spunky overweight younger daughter Mary Anne calls attention to her father’s bigotries in an attempt herself to win the acknowledgement from a father who has little interest in girls. Indeed she wonders aloud if girls are allowed full Meechum family status, when she asks: “Am I a Meechum Dad? Can girls be real Meechums; girls with jump shots” Or am I a single form of Meechum, like in biology – Mary Anne, the one-celled Meechum!” Bull’s response is to bolt away, declaring ‘Jesus H. Christ, I’m going to the club! I can’t stand it around here!” Bull himself is a practical jokester who once entered a public dining room where a number of his fellow Marines gathered, and pretended to vomit on a patron’s shoe while emptying the contents of a can of mushroom soup he had hidden under his coat. The diners who were unaware of the scam were revolted and left in disgust.
While The Great Santini was greeted to mostly excellent reviews when released, a small minority took issue with the film’s racial sub-plot that involves the stuttering son of the Meechum maid Arabelle Smalls. The son, Toomer, a close friend of Ben, is the victim of bullying by young red-necks, who mimic his stammer and humiliate him in public. When the confrontation escalates, Toomer turns the table on the central bigot, Red Pettus (David Keith) embarrassing him in front of witnesses. This results in tragedy when Red returns to kill Toomer’s dogs. He kills one, but a second bullet goes astray mortally wounding Toomer, who then opens the gate letting the remaining dogs maul Red to his own death. When Bull arrives at the scene to reprimand his son for getting involved in the racial skirmishes by moving to aid Toomer, he finds the young black man lying dead in the front seat of Ben’s car, and must break the news to a stricken Arabelle. The Pettus family, who represent the uneducated poor white families who propagate racism to feel higher on the pecking order, recalls the Ewells, the white trash family responsible for the tragic death of Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and the Robert Mulligan film based on it. Conroy purposely focused some of his attention on the racial problems of the south that were all around him in his formative years, and of how injustice was an outgrowth of sustained hate and prejudice. The friendship with Toomer, and the tragic event are all part of the coming-age process that script writer and director Carlino transcribes from Conroy’s autobiographical work. Hatred and sorrow are woven in to the tragic sequence in a manner that fully conveys the futility of racism as compellingly as any other film on the subject. As Toomer, the actor Stan Shaw avoids the trappings of the saintly black man terrorized by whites in offering up an intense performance as a young man seeking justice and equality in a hostile world.
Cinematographer Ralph Woolsey effectively captures the 60’s time period with muted hues and some dreamy nostalgic textures that allow for the drama to play out with potent close ups and mid-range framing. This allows for the potent script that Carlino penned with Herman Raucher and the fireworks generated by Duvall and O’Keefe to hold center stage.
But the film’s exquisite score by veteran Elmer Bernstein ranks among the legendary composer’s most beautiful, one to be stand with his work in To Kill A Mockingbird and Far From Heaven in lyrical felicity and orchestral color. The sweeping beauty of the lines reaches it’s deepest resonance in the stirring sequence when Ben sits in Spanish class reading a letter from his mother that informs him that she most admires the quality of gentleness in a man, and that he has taught her the true meaning of love. The irresistible theme is initiated by the violin and harp, expands in full orchestral splendor as Ben re-reads the letter near the river, and then subsiding to an arresting coda. It’s one of the most breathtakingly sublime moments in the cinema. Other themes in Bernstein’s score are alternately rhapsodic, pastoral and infused with friendship and hope, while evoking the heartfelt essence of familial love. In the film’s more harrowing passages, the composer uses minimalist sounds to evoke danger and foreboding, and then finally to denote grief.
The Great Santini aims straight for the heart with it’s story of emotional dislocation and a family torn asunder by tyrannical expectations. It’s an unqualified triumph for Duvall, O’ Keefe, Danner, Bernstein, and Carlino, who brought an intimate coming-of-age story with personal and social themes in such a manner as to induce shattered viewers to believe what transpired during the film’s running time really mattered, and who collaborated to make an impressive novel a great film.