The Great Santini
|The Great Santini|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Lewis John Carlino|
|Produced by||Charles A. Pratt|
|Based on||The Great Santini|
by Pat Conroy
|Music by||Elmer Bernstein|
|Edited by||Houseley Stevenson, Jr.|
|Box office||$4.7 million|
The Great Santini is a 1979 American drama film written and directed by Lewis John Carlino, based on the 1976 novel of the same name by Pat Conroy. The film stars Robert Duvall, Blythe Danner, and Michael O'Keefe, and tells the story of a U.S. Marine Corps officer whose success as an F-4 Phantom military aviator contrasts with his shortcomings as a husband and father. Set in 1962, before widespread American involvement in the Vietnam War, the plot explores the high price of heroism and self-sacrifice.
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 dominant 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, and yelling at his other kids and wife for interfering. Ben finally beats him in basketball, but rather than be proud of his son's dedication, he berates and insults him while bouncing the ball off his head. Later that night Ben awakes to the sound of his father practicing basketball alone in the driveway. His mother tells Ben not to be angry at his father, and that deep down he is secretly proud of Ben. The father is just struggling with losing so much control of the things he used to know. This is seen most prominently when Ben is publicly embarrassed one night at the school gym when his dad, not wanting to feel ashamed, orders him to get even with an opponent who committed a foul against him. Ben tackles the boy and breaks his arm. He is ejected from the game after which the coach kicks him off the team.
Ben befriends a young black man called Toomer, who is being harassed by Red Pettus, a bigoted bully. Toomer exacts revenge on Red with the help of a hive of bees, but tragic consequences ensue as Red shoots Toomer. Ben, against the orders of his father, leaves the house and tries to help Toomer, but arrives too late. Meechum is angry for his son's disobedience, but his fellow Marine tells him that Ben showed courage by choosing to help his friend.
Meechum is unwilling or unable to appreciate his son's sensitive nature. Their relationship is still a delicate one when the Great Santini flies one last mission, a military maneuver, from which he does not return. When Meechum's jet has engine failures he chooses to crash it into the sea rather than eject and risk it crashing into a nearby town. After his father's death and subsequent funeral the family packs up and leaves town. Ben has assumed the role of his late father and has become the "man" of the house, something his father always wanted him to be.
- Robert Duvall as Lt. Col. Wilbur "Bull" P. Meechum, a.k.a "The Great Santini"
- Blythe Danner as Lillian "Lil" Meechum
- Michael O'Keefe as Ben Meechum
- Stan Shaw as Toomer Smalls
- Brian Andrews as Matthew Meechum
- Paul Gleason as 1st Lt. Sammy
- Julie Anne Haddock as Karen Meechum
- David Keith as Red Pettus
- Paul Mantee as Col. Virgil "Virg" Hedgepath
- Theresa Merritt as Arrabelle Smalls
- Lisa Jane Persky as Mary Anne Meechum
- Michael Strong as Col. Varney
- Joe A. Dorsey as Coach Spinks
Lewis John Carlino adapted the script from Conroy's novel. Carlino also directed the film. The title character, Lt. Col. Wilbur "Bull" Meechum, aka "The Great Santini", was based on Conroy's father.
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 main characters' surname was also changed from Meecham to Meechum. Also changed is Meecham's aircraft; in the book, he 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.
Herman Raucher misattribution
Herman Raucher is often credited as a ghostwriter for the feature film. However, Raucher did no work on the film; the misconception arises from the fact that, in the 1980s, Raucher was hired to write a television pilot adaptation of the movie; he only wrote "a couple of pieces," he explained.
Warner Bros. executives were concerned that the film's plot and lack of bankable actors would make it difficult to market. It made its world premiere in Beaufort in August 1979 and was soon released in North Carolina and South Carolina to empty cinemas. Believing the film's title — which implied it was about circus stunts — was the problem, it was tested with other titles: 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.
Producer Charles A. Pratt still had faith in the film and raised enough money (some from Orion) to release The Great Santini in New York City under its original title. It received positive reviews, and business was steady. Two weeks later, it 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.
The film was well received by critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 95% rating, based on 19 reviews, with an average rating of 8/10. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote: "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." John Simon of National Review wrote that The Great Santini was 'an uneven achievement that nevertheless contains enough of value to justify catching it'.
In popular culture
Movies and television have referenced the one-on-one basketball game from The Great Santini during which Bull Meechum repeatedly bounces the ball off of Ben's head while asking, "You gonna cry?" Comedic parodies of the scene appear in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and in television episodes of The Simpsons and Roseanne. This movie was also referenced in Season 2 of the television series King of the Hill in the 17th episode "Hank's Dirty Laundry", in which Hank mentions that he had rented and returned this movie 23 times.
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