Tuesday 6 August 2019

Movie Review: The Great Santini (1979)

A social drama about life with a military man, The Great Santini explores the creeping agony of a warrior without a war struggling to fill the void in his life.

It's 1962, and Lieutenant Colonel Wilbur "Bull" Meechum (Robert Duvall), also known as The Great Santini, is a proud ace fighter pilot with the Marines. After completing a training mission in Spain he returns to the US and relocates his wife Lillian (Blythe Danner) and four kids, including eldest son Ben (Michael O'Keefe), to his next assignment at the Beaufort, South Carolina military base. Although he is often loving and supportive, Meechum treats his family as an extension of his career and demands authoritarian respect and strict military discipline at home.

The children are used to a life of annual uprooting, and Ben soon makes the basketball varsity team at his new school and befriends the family housekeeper's son Toomer (Stan Shaw), who stutters and suffers racist slurs from local goon Red Petus (David Keith). Meanwhile Meechum grows frustrated with the years passing him by and no war to call his own. He turns increasingly surly and violent, poisoning the family dynamic.

The Great Santini delves into the dangers of living life by a single code and no differentiation between career success and home serenity. Author Pat Conroy wrote the book partially inspired by personal experience with his own father, and director Lewis John Carlino (who also penned the screenplay) creates a reasonably engaging character study but with uneven patches.

As a hard-drinking, prankster-loving but revered pilot, Meechum comes across as a personification of Jekyll and Hyde in his home environment. The jarring transitions from loving husband and father to a man who loses all sense of perspective when beaten by his son at basketball induce whiplash, Carlino resorting to binary good or evil modes and unable to introduce nuance.

The theme of a proud man trained and educated for war struggling to thrive in a time of peace (the events are set before the Vietnam War ramp-up) is worthwhile. The military machine produces hard and cocky men like Meechum to fight and win battles, and in the absence of a real war, the home front becomes a proxy battleground.

In addition to imposing rigid expectations about his son's future in the military, Meechum is hardwired to find trouble and come out ahead. From the opening scenes he instigates chaos to disrupt the calm of diners at a swanky restaurant in Spain, and later at the Beaufort base he abuses one soldier and physically tussles with a commander.

Robert Duvall dominates the film and makes the most of what he has to work with in terms of Meechum's definition. A few too many scenes portray him succumbing to alcohol and suffering the consequences. Better are his conflicts with Ben and Lillian stemming from his declining influence and lessened ability to exert authority. Ben's subplots featuring advances into adulthood and the friendship with Toomer are cinematically flat and often appear to belong in another lesser movie.

Caught between a higher purpose and a mundane reality, The Great Santini erratically fluctuates between good and awkward.

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