The Great Santini

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This article is about the film. For the novel, see The Great Santini (novel).
The Great Santini
Great santini.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Lewis John Carlino
Produced by Charles A. Pratt
Screenplay by
Based on The Great Santini 
by Pat Conroy
Music by Elmer Bernstein
Cinematography Ralph Woolsey
Edited by Houseley Stevenson, Jr.
Distributed by
Release dates
  • October 26, 1979 (1979-10-26)
Running time
115 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Box office $4.7 million[2]

The Great Santini is a 1979 American drama film directed by Lewis John Carlino, written by Carlino and an uncredited Herman Raucher, and based on the 1976 novel of the same name by Pat Conroy. The film stars Robert Duvall, Blythe Danner, and Michael O'Keefe.

The film tells the story of a Marine officer whose success as an F-4 Phantom military aviator contrasts with his shortcomings as a husband and father. The film explores the high price of heroism and self-sacrifice. The film is set in 1962 before widespread American involvement in the Vietnam War.


A warrior without a war, Lt. Col. Wilbur "Bull" Meechum, a pilot also known as "The Great Santini" to his fellow Marines, moves his family to the military-base town of Beaufort, South Carolina in peacetime 1962. His wife Lillian is loyal and docile, tolerant of Meechum's temper and drinking. Their teenaged kids, Ben and Mary Anne, are accustomed to his stern discipline and behave accordingly, while adapting to their new town and school.

Ben is a basketball star. On the court at school, he is a dominating player. In one-on-one games on his driveway at home, his father won't let him win, even if it means using unnecessarily physical tactics or humiliating the boy, bouncing the ball off him. Ben is publicly embarrassed one night at the school gym when his dad, drunk, orders him to get even with an opponent who committed a foul. Ben decks the boy and is ejected from the game.

Ben befriends a young black man called Toomer, who is being harassed by Red Petus, a bigoted bully. Toomer exacts revenge on Red with the help of a hive of bees. But tragic consequences ensue.

Meechum is unwilling or unable to appreciate the sensitive nature of his son. Their relationship is still a delicate one when the Great Santini flies one last mission, a military maneuver, from which he does not return.


Production notes[edit]

The script was adapted by Lewis John Carlino from the novel, with assistance from an un-credited Herman Raucher. Carlino directed the film. The title character, Lt. Col. Wilbur "Bull" Meechum, aka "The Great Santini", was based on Conroy's father.

Much of the film was shot on location in Beaufort, South Carolina. Tidalholm, the 19th century-house used for the Meechum residence, was later used in The Big Chill.

The story, for the most part, follows the book. The movie's major divergence is the absence of Sammy, Ben Meecham's Jewish best friend. The spelling of the family's name was also changed from Meecham to Meechum. Also, changed is that in the book Meecham flies and commands a squadron of F-8 Crusaders while in the film the fighters shown are F-4 Phantom IIs.

The film was shot in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but was only produced in that ratio in the LaserDisc format. Both the VHS & DVD releases are in 1.33:1 also known as full screen or pan & scan. To date the film has not had a release in the Blu-ray Disc format.


Warner Bros. executives were concerned that the film's plot and lack of bankable actors would make it hard to market. It made its world premiere in Beaufort in August 1979 and was soon released in North Carolina and South Carolina to empty houses. Believing that the film's title - giving the perception that it was about circus stunts - was the problem, it was tested as Sons and Heroes in Fort Wayne, Indiana, as Reaching Out in Rockford, Illinois, and The Ace in Peoria, Illinois. As it tested better in Peoria, The Ace stuck, though even with its new title it was still performing poorly. Orion Pictures eventually pulled the film and sold cable rights to HBO along with the airline rights to recoup its losses.[3]

Producer Charles A. Pratt still had faith in the film and raised enough money, some coming from Orion, to release The Great Santini in New York under its original title. It ended up getting great reviews and business was steady, but two weeks later debuted on HBO, and audiences stopped coming. Orion executive Mike Medavoy blamed the film's box office failure to a lack of a traditional release: screening it first in New York and expanding markets due to word-of-mouth.[3]

Critical reception[edit]

The film was well received by critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 94% rating, based on 18 reviews, with an average rating of 7.9/10.[4] Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that "Like almost all my favorite films, The Great Santini is about people more than it is about a story. It's a study of several characters, most unforgettably the Great Santini himself, played by Robert Duvall... There are moments so unpredictable and yet so natural they feel just like the spontaneity of life itself."[5]


The Great Santini received two Academy Award nominations: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Duvall) and Best Actor in a Supporting Role (O'Keefe).


  1. ^ "THE GREAT SANTINI (A)". British Board of Film Classification. October 15, 1979. Retrieved November 28, 2015. 
  2. ^ "The Great Santini (1979)". Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved November 28, 2015. 
  3. ^ a b Medavoy, Mike and Young, Josh (2002). You're Only as Good as Your Next One: 100 Great Films, 100 Good Films, and 100 for Which I Should Be Shot (p. 105-107). New York City: Atria Books
  4. ^ "The Great Santini (1979)". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved November 28, 2015. 
  5. ^ Ebert, Roger (January 1, 1980). "The Great Santini". Chicago Sun-Times. 

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