The Warner Archive has released the 1979 film The Great
Santini on DVD. In many ways, the film helped break Hollywood’s long-standing
glorification of war -- to a point. But it would seem old habits die hard, and
when they do, we’re left with an uneven picture that goes to verge of making a
powerful statement on war before backing off to familiar and safe settings.
Right off the bat, we’re introduced to a Marine
dogfighter, Lt. Col. “Bull” Meechem (Robert Duvall in an Oscar-nominated
performance), as he simulates air-to-air combat with his fellow pilots. Here is
clearly a man in his element, trash-talking and verbally harassing his fellow
pilots as he makes quick work of them.
The grainy stock footage of fighter planes is followed
shortly by a group of carousing Marines making trouble in a bar full of stuffed
shirts and officers, a scene straight out of the classic World War II films
that preceded it. But then the film takes an abrupt turn as we meet Meechem’s
family. These are the Von Trapps of the corps, each precocious and at the same
time fiercely loyal and more than a little fearful of their father.
We begin to see that the title is more than a little
ironic. Despite Meechum’s corps nickname of The Great Santini, there’s very
little admirable about this man. He’s homophobic, misogynistic and physically
and emotionally abusive to his wife, children and fellow Marines. Throughout it
all, excuses are made for Santini. “He’s
getting old, and that’s the hardest thing in the world,” explains his wife
Lillian (Bylthe Danner). On multiple occasions, it’s observed that all the
Colonel needs is a war in which to let out his aggression and let his true
skills as a crack pilot be put to good use.
Released in a post-Vietnam 1979, the film (directed by Lewis John Carlino) is uniquely
able to make this argument. In war time, perhaps it’s okay for someone to be
both a patriot, decorated soldier and an unrepentant asshole, and the audience
will accept these character flaws. But in relatively peaceful times, we plainly
see a man whose life is unraveling. The film is careful not to reveal this
upfront, instead letting his flaws slowly outweigh his positive
characteristics. It’s not until the halfway mark that someone observes of
Santini, “I know a drunk when I see one,” even if the audience is never fed the
stock scene of a man drinking himself to death.
While the film is careful to let this flawed character
unfold deftly by Duvall, it’s often heavy-handed. His eldest son Ben (Michael
O’Keefe), arguably the film’s true protagonist, butts heads with his father at
every turn. He shows emotion and compassion in stark contrast to Santini, but O’Keefe’s
performance often borders on hammy overacting (despite the fact that he was also
nominated for an Oscar for his work in the film). The movie also disappoints in
its scope. Not content to show one man’s struggle to become a better father and
husband (although we can argue about how hard he fights for this), it
overreaches in an attempt to also solve racism through a unnecessary subplot
that seems thrown in for drama’s sake.
In even acknowledging that some skilled warriors need
not be admired beyond their military abilities, the film breaks ground. But The
Great Santinifalls short in
delivering any grand message in the end, instead once again reminding us that
Meechem isn’t so bad -- he just needed a war to cure him of his
self-destructive behavior. One wishes the Warner Archive bare-bones DVD
provided some extras for context (the only special feature is an original
Ultimately, the message seems to be, to paraphrase
Flannery O’Connor, that Santini would be a good man if only there had been
someone to shoot at his whole life.
Click here to order from Warner Archive and to view preview clip