Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Great Santini

Last night's viewing was the 1979 movie The Great Santini.

The story opens up with an establishing scene in the skies over Spain in 1962. A bunch of Marine pilots (the US had a military base in Spain at the time), led by Lt. Col. Bull Meechum (Robert Duvall) doing a training exercise, in which Meechum shows he's a better pilot than the rest of them. Cut to a going-away party for him, since he's getting transferred back stateside; this particular party shows Meechum, nicknamed "Santini", to be a drunken boor and frankly a character I wouldn't want to be around in my life.

Anyhow, when he returns to the US he's greeted by his wife Lillian (Blythe Danner) and their four children, most notably oldest son Ben (Michael O'Keefe). They've been living with Grandma, but Dad's return home means that they're going to be transferred yet again, to Beaufort, SC. It seems like they move once a year like clockwork, something that particularly bugs the second-oldest child, daughter Mary Anne.

What should bother them even more is the way Dad runs the household. He's a Marine through and through, and it's as though that's the only thing he knows how to be. So while he's a tough SOB on base, he's an even tougher SOB with his family, raising them like a drill instructor instead of a father. Unsurprisingly, the kids, as they get older, start to chafe at all of this, and who can blame them.

Ben, for his part, qualifies for the high school basketball team and becomes friends with Toomer (Stan Shaw), the son of the family's black maid. Toomer's basically a decent guy, but he has a stutter and probably an intellectual disability. That, combined with his being a black guy in early 1960s South Carolina, means that there are going to be a lot of white locals who are going to treat him like shit, which ultimately has tragic consequences when Toomer stands up for himself. On the other hand, it also leads to Ben finally standing up to his father....

As I watched The Great Santini, I couldn't help but think of Wings, a movie I reviewed here last September. Both movies present characters who were good at fighting in the military, but who don't seem to be able to handle peacetime life. Both movies are also more character studies, although The Great Santini has a clearer plot than Wings. In that regard, I found it a bit tough to get into The Great Santini.

I think that was even tougher for me, though, is the fact that Bull Meechum is such an unlikeable character that I wanted to see most of the characters act differently than they do around him -- frankly, I wanted somebody to beat the crap out of him early on. Or even better, multiple somebodies. I can't deny, however, that Duvall gives an excellent performance and the rest of the cast is quite good too. The movie as a whole looks technically well-made. In that regard, it reminded me of another character study with a character I loathed, Under the Volcano.

In short, The Great Santini is a movie where it's easy to understand why so many people would consider it a great movie. I wouldn't say it's bad by any means -- it's really quite good. I just think that people ought to know going in that it's a character study of someone uncomfortable to watch.

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