The Great Santini (1979)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Lewis John Carlino
Run Time
1 hour and 55 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity
Star Rating
★★★★★5 out of 5

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 55 min.

Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 2; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—this is the first commandment with a promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Ephesians 6:1-4

Warning for those who have not seen the film:

Important spoiler in the section beginning with “There’s much, much more!”

The Great Santini is for parents and teenagers, and for all who appreciate a good story with strong characters. Based on Pat Conroy’s novel (he gave us Conrack), this is the story of the passage of a boy into manhood and of his difficult, changing relationship with his father, who dubs himself as “The Great Santini.” It’s also the story of the strong, quiet woman whose love for both her Marine pilot husband and her gentle son brings her pain, as well as understanding and strength to them. Few films this year have packed such a dramatic punch or offered such insights into human character and family relationships as director Lewis John Carlino’s film.

Lt. Col. Bull Meechum, forcefully portrayed by Robert Duvall, is the kind of squadron leader whom men will follow through the gates of Hell. His problem is that it is the beginning of the Sixties, a rare time of peace. For a man whose fondest memories are those of action and comrades in the Korean War, peace can be a kind of hell. Bull loves to strike fear into recruits and younger officers. Transferred from Spain to a base in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he is to shape up a squadron gone soft, Bull introduces himself to his men by declaring that he wants them to follow his orders immediately with no questions. “I want you to think of me as (long pause) … God!”

This divine fiat approach works with his men, but unfortunately, Col. Meechum tries it with his family as well. On their first morning in their new home he lines up his four children as if for roll call, addresses them as “sports fans,” and barks orders to them in a way that brooks no interference – from them or his wife Lillian. Signs of rebellion, however, show up early in the film. His teenage daughter calls him “Godzilla,” and the oldest son Ben, sensitively played by Michael O’Keefe, is not at all interested in the Marine Corps career that his father has selected for him. Ben is a senior in high school and therefore anxious to do well and become a member of the basketball team. His antagonism toward his father erupts during a game between the two in their backyard. Ben is able to keep up with his father for the first time. This obviously bothers the older man. Bull starts to commit deliberate fouls. Ben taunts him, “You’ve always won in all of our games, Dad–chess, checkers, ball, whatever … ” Then the son reaches the agreed upon number of baskets first, but his father will not concede. He tries to force Ben to continue the game. The other children jeer, and Ben walks away with them in disgust.

Blythe Danner portrays Lillian Meechum who loves but cannot condone all the actions of her violence-prone husband. After the disastrous father-son game, she goes to Ben in his room and tries to help him see his father through her eyes–a tough but frightened, frustrated man who doesn’t know how to express his love, especially to those closest to him. Lillian at first appears weak to her children, but she emerges in their eyes as a tower of gentle strength. On Ben’s 18th birthday she writes him the kind of loving, affirmative letter that any mother would like to be able to compose. When Bull beats her one night and the children rush in screaming their outrage, she is the one who insists that Ben go out to bring his father back. She doesn’t want Bull embarrassed by being found wandering around the base in a drunken condition.

Ben reluctantly goes after his dad. He overhears him muttering in his drunken state. In a powerful scene of love over-coming resentment the son tells Bull, “I love you, Dad–and there’s nothing you can do about it!” Here is tough, Crucifixion-Resurrection love that Ben arrives at out of his own painful groping in the dark for a fuller relationship with his parent – and aided by the wise compassion of a mother who will never give up. Change is difficult for a man like Bull Meechum, but he is able then to express his love for his teen-age daughter by giving her a lovely dress for a school dance. This is quite a contrast to an earlier scene in which Bull could not even look up from his newspaper when she had wanted to talk.

There’s much, much more, including a touching interracial friendship that leads to tragic results. Ben emerges shaken but matured by the crisis, assured by his mother that he has found an inner freedom, one beyond hatred and resentment. After what has happened to his brave father, Ben does not feel this way at all. Instead he is wracked by tremendously guilt. The boy confesses to his mother that at times he had prayed that his father would not return from a mission. “I feel so terrible that he had to die for me to be free!” Lillian assures him that this isn’t true. She reminds Ben of his attempt to rescue his black friend from a gang of toughs. This was against the direct orders of his father. Ben had known what was right and had done it. At that moment he was free, she counsels him.

Church groups should see The Great Santini, along with the last film that we shall look at, for a discussion of parenting. Any teenager experiencing difficulty in communicating with parents might invite them to see the film and then talk about it, gradually getting around in a non-threatening way to his/her own family. The film also provides us with opportunities for thinking and talking about manhood. What is a man? (Remember the Marine Corps poster “The Marines Build Men”?) Does being a man mean to be rough and tough? How can gentleness be a manly quality, too? What about our Lord? Does he provide any clues to manliness? Such issues are raised in unforgettable ways by this superb production.

Note: This wonderful film needs to be brought to the attention of a new generation of film lovers. The above is a slightly revised review that appeared in a 1979 issue of Marriage & Family Magazine. Published by the Benedictine Brothers of St. Meinrad, Indiana as a part of their Abbey Press, the Brothers were a model for Ecumenism, employing a Presbyterian pastor as their Media Editor. They also published my first book in 1976, Gadgets, Gimmicks & Grace: Multimedia in Church and School.

A 16-question discussion guide for the film is in my book FILMS and FAITH: Forty Discussion Guides (available from VP’s Walton Office), and the meditation based on it “Love That Will Not Go Away” is in my WJK Press book PRAYING THE MOVIES: Daily Meditations From Classic Films.


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