Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: The Great Santini

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Orion’s The Great Santini has been sitting on the shelf for about a year now and seems unlikely to move off it unless pay-TV pops for it.* The second (surely there can’t be more?) directorial effort of screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea was the first), the film seems unsalable in the present Hollywood scheme of things. It is, for one thing, a small movie, without the sort of topical hook that might lend it the opportunistic urgency to make a distribution and publicity push worthwhile. It is also a hopeless mess. Its central showpiece and only detectable raison-d’être is Robert Duvall’s tour-de-force characterization of Marine super–fighter-pilot and congenital bad-/hardass “Bull” Meechum—an extension (whether or not it was so intended) of Duvall’s Col. Kilgore (Apocalypse Now). The film gets underway in Spain, 1962, with a demonstration of Meechum’s superior aerial tactical skills, then a demonstration of his hellraising skills at a party jointly celebrating his air team’s besting of their Navy rivals and his own transfer home to assume his first squadron command—and incidentally rejoin his devout Southern Catholic wife (Blythe Danner) and four offspring. Bawling mock-serious—but also deadly-serious—orders at the familial troops, he packs them up at 0300 hours to drive to Beaufort (that’s bewfert), S.C., and settle into his new billet. The rest of the movie enlarges on the dynamics of life in a Marine household, with especial attention being paid to the relationship of Meechum—self-styled The Great Santini—and his 18-year-old son (Michael O’Keefe). Son resents the hell out of Dad, and drops an occasional hint that he may not sign on for an obligatory four-year tour after he’s completed college (he’s currently a high-school senior); but their relationship is also fiercely loving—as, indeed, virtually all Meechum’s relationships appear to be, one way or the other.

Duvall, and Danner as the wife, are excellent actors capable of drawing rich characterizations (compare Apocalypse‘s Kilgore as written and Kilgore as incarnated by Duvall); but Carlino’s script is so lacking in focus and all but the most mechanical kind of structure that mostly they can only spin their wheels here—spin them at a high pitch, but spin them nonetheless. Carlino’s direction is worse: Ralph Woolsey’s cinematography is muddy as usual, the flow of images within any sequence is so ragged as to be nonexistent, and the only shots that are certifiably composed and designed are clichés. One wants to be on The Great Santini‘s side because movies based on character are an endangered species these days, and Duvall/Meechum undeniably is a character. His outrageous energy is infectious—say one thing for Carlino, he clearly has not set out to trash “Santini” as a geek-macho target of trendy opportunity—and there are some exhilarating set-pieces: in Spain, Meechum grossing out a posh restaurant full of officers and wives by lurching from table to table and then pretending to barf on the bandstand (he covertly spills a can of mushroom soup on the floor and his men eagerly fall to with spoons); in the head at Beaufort, reaching under the partition between commodes to drag his neighbor forth by the heels and upend him in the crapper—then, discovering it’s not his post-commander buddy but a hapless corporal, improvising a passionate diatribe on the need for preparedness at all times; saying hello to the new black maid by trading shoulder punches; trying to ignore his homely elder daughter as she harangues him with fantasies of her despoliation by a black homosexual and insists they should really get to know each other through conversation (“I don’t want ya to know me! I wanna remain an enigma, like a Chink!”). But the Great Santini remains a character without a proper movie to contain him.

As both writer and director, Carlino apparently has no sense of rhythm whatsoever, This is fatal to the inexperienced players cast as the children: O’Keefe comes off ludicrous in his moments of most intense distraction and it’s entirely the fault of the direction, both for stranding him as a player and for leaving the inept scenes there. As for the script, there’s a subplot involving O’Keefe’s friendship with a stuttering black (Sam Shaw) that is never properly (you should forgive the expression) integrated with the rest of the film, and in fact derails the narrative for nearly a reel till it is bloodily disposed of. (Brubaker‘s David Keith figures in here as the black’s chief Southern-fried tormentor.) The 1962 timeframe is an irrelevant distraction: the Cuban missile crisis is mentioned at one point and we know, inescapably, that Vietnam is in the offing; but Meechum’s self-described anxiety as a warrior without a war to fight is nothing more than a token indication of one direction The Great Santini could have gone if it had been going anywhere at all. It is a measure of Carlino’s desperation that the film opts for a last-minute heroic finish with Meechum refusing to bail out of a burning plane, instead opting to stay aboard and steer the thing away from town and out to sea to prevent civilian casualties. One knows it’s coming because there has been no flying since the opening sequence, the elder son and daughter are on their way to the prom and their first social triumph among their civilian peers, and Dad is heard to mutter from his front porch seat, “It’s nothing—just a routine night flight…” Gawd, Carlino!

*OK, wrong call. Several weeks after this was written, The Great Santini secured a national release and proved to be a sleeper. Robert Duvall was subsequently nominated for an Oscar, which makes sense now as it would have then; Michael O’Keefe was also nominated, but I retract nothing.

© 1981 Richard T. Jameson

Direction: Lewis John Carlino. Screenplay: Carlino, after the memoir by Pat Conroy. Cinematography: Ralph Woolsey. Editing: Housely Stevenson. Music: Elmer Bernstein.
The players: Robert Duvall, Blythe Danner, Michael O’Keefe, Paul Mantee, Stan Shaw, David Keith, Leonard Strong.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.