Pros:Duvall's performance, story, characters, pacing
Cons:effects which weren't that great even for 1979
The Bottom Line: A great film that's part family drama and part slice-of-life about one military man and how hard that life was on his family.
In all the performances Ive seen Robert Duvall in over the years, perhaps the most memorable for me was The Great Santini. I saw it more than twenty years ago for the first time and remembered almost the entire plot for all these years.
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Robert Duvall is a Marine pilot known as The Great Santini, Lt. Colonel Bull Meechum. Its 1962 and he returns from overseas deployment and brings his family to a new town. He tries to run his family like the corps, but has a harder time with his children than with his men.
In many ways he hasnt grown up. He always has to win with his kids when they play games. When his son, Ben (portrayed by Michael OKeefe), beats him fairly at basketball, Bull changes the rules and yells at his family. He cant handle being beaten. Everything comes back to him. When Ben makes the varsity team, Bulls response is Of course you did, you only had the greatest coach in the world.
Santini is a great pilot, so he gets away with more than his fair share of antics. However, it slips at one point that he is passed over for promotion because of his track record. Hes driven beyond anything to be the hero, the only problem is that theres no war currently going on. To try to be the hero, he attempts to use the same tactics on his family he would on his men, and doesnt understand why hes not a hero to them.
One of the best contrasts of the character is shown in the beginning of the film when Meechum is seen out with his buddies in a bar in Spain. The buddy-buddy relationship he has here with his men is the one he strives to have with his son, only he doesnt know how to go about it. His daughter Mary Ann (portrayed by Lisa Jane Persky) craves attention from her father as she sees him only paying attention to her older brother who can follow in his footsteps.
Ben is coming of age and rebelling against his fathers plans for him. He forms a bond with the son of their maid, Toomer (portrayed by Stan Shaw). The unlikely friendship is what sparks Ben to finally stand up to his father.
The acting is superb and really is what makes the film. Robert Duvall gives one of the finest performances of his career as Bull Meechum. Its obvious he doesnt know how to relate to his family. He bullies them and verbally abuses them, all the while not understanding the long-lasting damage hes inflicting upon them. At the same time, I found myself rooting for him to be different and do what he could to cultivate the relationship with his family. Hes not a deliberately bad guy, he just doesnt know how to be what many of us would call a loving father and husband. Duvall gives Meechum the intensity needed for the part to convey his complete ignorance that hes doing anything wrong. This is just the way he knows how to be and he doesnt see anything wrong with it and doesnt understand what the problem is with his family.
Blythe Danner is more than superb as his long-suffering wife. She suffers abuse most definitely of the verbal kind and at one point it even turns physical, all the while holding the family together and trying to please her husband. Danner pulls it off with a quiet intensity that bridges the gap betweent he military world of Bull Meechum and his family. Shes used to the military life and resigned to what has to be, but it seems as if she accepts it as her lot in life. She doesnt fight it and tries to keep the peace; she makes excuses for her husbands bad behavior and tries to counsel Ben not to hate him too much.
Michael OKeefe gives a fine performance here. If you dont think you know the name, you probably know the face. Hes been in such movies as Caddyshack and Ghosts of Mississippi as well as television shows like Roseanne. His performance is terrific as he attempts to reconcile his own feelings and desires with that of his father. One of the best scenes is following a basketball game where he must face the damage hes caused. It wasnt what he wanted to do, but he was trying to do what his father wanted and in the process managed to alienate just about everyone else.
The military scenes are great as an accurate depiction of the contrast between military and civilian life. What doesnt fly are some of the effects. Its very obvious when Duvall is shown in the cockpit of his plane that its being shot against a blue screen or that his close-up is done in the studio. The Great Santini was released in 1979 and could have had better effects for the time.
This is a great film thats a cross between a slice-of-life and a family drama. If you have never seen it, I strongly advise you to check it out sometime soon. The story is terrific and moves along nicely. It dragged slightly during the statement about the lousy state of race relations at the time in the South, but it did serve to make the picture more of a depiction of the times rather than of one abusive military father. This wasnt a good time to be a minority or a woman, and that statement is made without hitting the viewer over the head with it.
© 2006 Patti Aliventi
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