Robert Duvall had himself a fantastic year of 1979. He was nominated for his supporting role in the iconic war film Apocalypse Now. He follows up that “napalm-smelling” performance with another Oscar-nominated performance in this movie The Great Santini. His character in this movie is a form of his character from Apocalypse Now. His character, Bull Meechum, is a hardened Marine who knows nothing but victory and competition. He lives his life with a code and he involves his family in his code. The main theme of the movie is family and at the heart of that theme is a father-and-son story. A very good one at that. The movie was directed and written by Lewis John Carlino, and he did a wonderful job in making the small moments matter. The story itself is a sentimental one, but it stays away from being sappy. There may be tears over the course of the film, but at least you should not end the movie feeling depressed.
Lets get ourselves acquainted with the Meechum family. Bull Meechum(Robert Duvall) is the patriarch of the family and is known as a great pilot and a Marine superstar. His wife is a gentle Southern lady named Lillian (Blythe Danner). She is a very supportive woman to all of her family, including her difficult husband. Then there are the kids-four kids in total. But our main focus is on the eldest son, Ben (Michael O’Keefe). Ben is eighteen years old and is a star basketball player for his high school. Bull is grooming him to join the military, but Ben has other ideas on what he wants to do with his life. Thus culminating a conflict between father and son. There are two main sections to the story: the relationship between father and son and the relationship between Ben and Toomer Smalls (Stan Shaw), the son of their black maid and their experiences in dealing with a racist named Red Petus (David Keith).
The first part of the story is absolutely my favorite and it consists of the first portion of the movie. It’s fun to watch Robert Duvall play to win, but its sad to see how it affects his family. The family constantly goes through hardships because they are always moving because of the military and this setting happens to be in South Carolina. As I mentioned in the opening, this is a father-and-son story. It’s all about Ben wanting to love his father, but at the same time, go on a different path. There was a scene that was hard to watch where Duvall and O’Keefe were playing backyard basketball and Duvall kept bouncing the ball off O’Keefe’s head during one of his modes of high intensity. This is a man who is a fierce competitor(he even wants to beat his son in basketball), a strong leader but has qualities of a dictator.
Now the second part of the film is very strong, but I’m not sure if it fits in the movie as a whole. The whole Toomer Smalls relationship seems tangential to the whole father-and-son story we were set up with. It explains the racism that prevailed in 1962 South Carolina very efficiently, but it seems a little random that it was in this movie. That being said, it was well-done and an integral part of Ben’s character.
The Great Santini is one of those films you won’t hear too much about which is a shame because I was taken by surprise how much I really enjoyed the film. It’s a character piece that is not afraid to take risks, which I cannot say the same of today’s films. I love watching father-and-son stories to see the different connections. Duvall and O’Keefe gave very strong performances and they bounced off each other very well. Both Duvall and O’Keefe were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances. Blythe Danner deserves a mention because of her performance as a sweet, gentle mother. There are many amusing, upbeat moments of the film, but beware of a dark sadness hiding within. Prepare to cry on more than one occasion. This film tackles the themes of heroism, self-sacrifice, grief, and the sense of being a human very well. I was taken aback on how much I loved this film, but I do love surprises.
My Grade: A