I have actively avoided seeing The Great Santini for 35 years, based on the fact that nothing I read about it held even the slightest appeal to me. Well, The Hendersonville Film Society opted to make me watch it. (No, I do not think this is why they programmed it.) My worst suspicions about the film were more than justified. This is just plain not a movie for me — on just about every level you care to name. Is it well-acted? Within the parameters of its premise and ham-handed screenplay, yes. Robert Duvall is good, if mostly one note. Michael O’Keefe is even better, as is Lisa Jane Persky. Theresa Merritt is always terrific even with thin material like this. (Her small role in 1971’s They Might Be Giants is one of the most beautifully touching things I’ve ever seen.) The filmmaking is competent, though it franjly looks like a TV movie (and the style of the credits only adds to this). In short, I can’t honestly say I think it’s a bad movie — at least on the surface.
My real issues with The Great Santini mostly lie in thematic matters. The film starts off with Duvall’s Lt. Colonel “Bull” Meechum (the self-proclaimed “Great Santini”) and his Marine flyboy buddies in Spain in 1962 indulging in obnoxious antics of the frat boy type that make it easy to understand why residents of other countries do not universally love Americans. (Hell, I knew it was a movie and I found these guys embarassing.) The film then moves Stateside to his new assignment training pilots in Beaufort, South Carolina. To this new post he has brought his family and moved them into a stately old house, while continuing his antics (including pulling some hapless low-ranking Marine out of a bathroom stall and dunking his head in a toilet in an outburst of rough-housing hijinks). By this point, I had no sympathy for Meechum. Soon, we see him engaging in abusive and angry behavior with his family, most particularly his oldest child, Ben (O’Keefe), and his wife, Lilian (Blythe Danner). He proceeds to bully and badger them for most of the rest of the film — before erupting into outright violence on Lillian. Yes, I know that such people exist and that this kind of behavior was more glossed over in 1962. But the film has it that one outburst of conscience and an heroic act makes everything OK. It’s like some non-mystical version of Ferenc Molnar’s 1909 play Liliom, and I can’t buy it. Nor can I buy into the ending which — accidentally, I’m sure — seems to suggest that Ben will inherit this propensity toward bullying and violence. I realize mine is a minority opinion on this film.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Great Santini Sunday, April 27, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.