This article is being written as part of the “Send in the Marines” Blogathon, co-hosted by Dubsism and Realweegiemidget. Thanks for letting me take part!
So here’s a first: a movie blogathon entry for a movie I couldn’t finish. In my defense, I have seen The Great Santini in its entirety twice, once in my childhood (early 1980s) and again in a film class in 1989. But I couldn’t quite make it through this recent watch-through. That’s not because it’s a bad film. On the contrary, it’s an extraordinarily good film, criminally overlooked and underrated. But its themes hit so close to home for me, and Robert Duvall’s character was so unrelentingly intense, that it was simply too wrenching to continue. Like the Ben character in the film, played by Michael O’Keefe, I am also the son of a career military officer, and though my father was thankfully nothing like the titular monster of The Great Santini, simply being a military kid entails a great deal of painful sacrifice that still hurts, even decades later.
The Great Santini is less about the title character than it is about how his family deals with him, or fails to. Colonel “Bull” Meachum (Duvall) is a brash, immature, aggressive and emotionally broken man with a bad drinking problem. He is also an ace aviator for the U.S. Marine Corps. In 1962, just prior to the Vietnam War, Meachum is transferred to a new base in South Carolina. His four kids–Ben, Mary Ann, Karen and Matthew, and his long-suffering wife Lillian (Blythe Danner)–constantly endure Bull’s verbal and emotional abuse as he insists on running his family like a Marines boot camp. He lectures his children while pacing in front of them in full uniform, he demands excellence at everything, especially Ben’s performance on his high school basketball team, and he goes to extremes in the “tough love” school of child-raising. Ben, who is 18, chafes under his father’s tyrannical hand. When he comes to the defense of his black friend Toomer (Stan Shaw) against his father’s orders when Toomer is threatened by a racist bully, Bull cares more about Ben’s act of rebellion than about the friend whose life he was trying to save. As is predictable (spoiler alert), Bull has his final mission from which he never returns. The family is freed from his tyranny while also still desperately trying to love him.
Bull Meachum (Robert Duvall) lectures his children in pure military fashion in this scene from early in The Great Santini, which is typical of the character’s approach to parenting. What would you get this guy for Father’s Day?
The villain of the piece is not so much Bull Meachum. It’s the institution of the Marines itself, or, more precisely, what happens when that institution takes over a person’s whole identity. There is very little of a real human being in Bull Meachum. It’s all the Marines, or what he thinks, possibly not accurately, being a Marine really means. He calls himself “The Great Santini” and prides himself on his accomplishments, which is entirely appropriate, but Bull never knows when to stop. It’s interesting that when I saw the film in 1989 in that film class, the instructor presented it as a film principally about alcoholism. And it’s true, Bull’s drinking is a constant problem and often the trigger of his outrageous behavior. But seeing it this time, 30 years later, I found it much less about alcoholism than about a loss of identity. Bull simply has none. It’s all military clichés. You’ve got to be tough as nails. You’ve got to win all the time. You can’t ever show weakness in any circumstance. That may be exactly what you want a Marine to be if he is in a foxhole in the Battle of Okinawa, but it’s a toxic and destructive philosophy for raising a family.
You can also read The Great Santini as being about toxic masculinity, though this is probably more of a 2019 “woke” take than the filmmakers intended when it was made 40 years ago. Bull’s public behavior, which he thinks is funny, is even more disgusting to watch today than it must have been in 1979. Seeing the film as a kid I remember laughing at the scene where Bull breaks up a fancy officer’s club dinner by pretending to barf on the band, expelling the contents of a can of cream of mushroom soup from his jacket. I didn’t laugh this time. I also didn’t laugh when Bull attacks an enlisted man in a bathroom, plunging his head in the toilet. “Swirlies” are the stuff of junior high pranks, but the thought of a decorated military officer doing something like that is appalling and sad, not funny. Duvall’s performance is so pitch-perfect that he squeezes every bit of discomfort and embarrassment out of the viewer in these scenes. He truly is a monster, and it was, in fact, his intensity in this role that made me unable to continue watching this time.
Here’s leadership, Bull Meachum style: the infamous “swirlie” scene from The Great Santini. I would argue this qualifies as “conduct unbecoming an officer,” but I’m just an SJW, so what do I know?
The Great Santini is based on a novel, published in 1976, by Southern writer Pat Conroy, who drew upon his upbringing in a military family and his own military career for his novels, which included The Prince of Tides and The Lords of Discipline. From watching this film, which hews pretty close to the book, you can tell instantly that Santini is at least semi-autobiographical. Indeed, Conroy, who died in 2016, was quoted as saying that his own father was even worse than the character portrayed in the novel. That’s hard to imagine, but at the same time I’m not surprised. Pat’s father, Donald, really was called “The Great Santini.” A veteran of World War II and Korea, Donald Conroy won the Distinguished Flying Cross and numerous other decorations. He terrorized his children. One went insane, another committed suicide. The real “Santini” died in 1998, apparently repentant and having repaired his relationship with his son, but Pat did say that they could never tell each other they loved one another, at least not in so many words.
Military families and especially children are asked to make terrible sacrifices for their country. Growing up with a father in the military–mine was Air Force–is more than just the nagging shadow of knowing that there could be a war and he could be killed, or, even in a non-combat situation, something could easily go wrong, as it does in this film. The equally painful sacrifices are the long, slow ones that often don’t manifest themselves until years or decades later. Moving all the time as a kid makes you not just different as a kid, but as an adult. I have no childhood friends that I’ve ever stayed in touch with. As an adult, people ask me, “So, where’d you grow up?” and I find it easier to lie to them by picking one place where I lived and pretending that’s where I was “from” than to explain that I didn’t really grow up anywhere in particular. Today, in my late 40s, I have more friends who live in other countries, and who I stay in touch with via electronic means, than I have face-to-face friends in real life. I feel strangely disconnected from my own past. I credit all that to my military upbringing. I don’t blame my father for it, though; he did the noble thing and served his country. I do, however, blame the military itself, because it just doesn’t give a damn about the spouses and the children.
This scene from The Great Santini is difficult to watch precisely because of the incredible strength of Duvall’s performance–and it’s why I had to stop watching. He was nominated for an Academy Award for this role.
The family in The Great Santini, and Pat Conroy’s family in real life, had much more than this inflicted upon them. In addition to the usual burdens of military life, which are hard enough for a kid, Bull’s children must endure his abuse, his drinking, his embarrassing and shameful antics, and, worst of all, his lack of affection. Throughout The Great Santini you never doubt that Bull loves his wife and kids. But that love is more theoretical than real, because love is not something that the Marine Corps recognizes as having any value. Consequently, Bull can be a loving husband and father only on paper, but never in real life. This is the loop that the family must try to close after Bull’s death, and they can’t do it.
I doubt that The Great Santini could be made today, at least not by a major studio. After Vietnam and particularly beginning with the 1991 Persian Gulf War, honoring the military and its veterans–“supporting the troops,” whatever that means–has become so fetishized and demanding, a sort of patriotic virtue signaling, that even the slightest hint of casting aspersions on the institution of the military would likely cause controversy today that no film studio would want to sign up for. The Great Santini is not anti-military or anti-American by any stretch of the imagination, but if it came out today it would invariably be co-opted as a weapon for people who are deeply invested in those kinds of culture war battles. Sadly the day for this kind of filmmaking is probably over. But this is still a great film, and leaves you with a lot to think about, and, if you too were from a military family, a lot to cry over.
Thanks to Dubsism and Reelweegiemidget for hosting the blogathon!