Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Trailer Tuesday: The Great Santini

Pat Conroy passed away a couple of days ago. I had read a bunch of his novels... many were made into movies.

THE GREAT SANTINI (1979)

Director: Lewis John Carlino.
Writers: Lewis John Carlino based on the novel by Pat Conroy
Starring: Robert Duvall, Michael O'Keefe, Blythe Danner, Stan Shaw.

I was joking around about Father’s Day movies on twitter and suggested this film... then realized that this may be one of those films which has fallen through the cracks and many people have no idea it exists (and didn’t get the joke). This is arguably Robert Duvall’s finest performance (he was nominated for an Oscar); and that says something, doesn’t it? It’s a drama, a coming of age movie... except you are never quite sure if it is that son or the father who is coming of age. Probably both. The reason why I first saw this movie was because it was written and directed by Lewis John Carlino, the screenwriter who adapted SECONDS (one of my favorite movies.) For a while there I saw everything Carlino did, which included some great work like RESURRECTION (1980) and THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA and he wrote the original THE MECHANIC. I liked this movie so much that I tracked down the novel by some guy named Pat Conroy and began reading his stuff. That guy can write!

The story takes place in 1962. Duvall plays Bull Meechum (nicknamed The Great Santini) , a hard ass Marine fighter pilot who is a bit of a contradiction: he wants those in his command to be disciplined, tough as nails, unemotional, and fearless... but he’s a man child who is constantly pulling practical jokes on his superiors and is secretly afraid that he is losing his edge due to age. He is a warrior without a war... and ends up fighting those around him. *He* is a discipline problem, so he gets shipped from his base in Spain back to a training base in the South Carlolina in the USA... and his family. And begins to fight them.



His wife is played by Blythe Danner (who you know as Gwenyth Paltrow’s mom, but she was a stage and TV star at the time), a religious woman who has learned to put up with Bull’s verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse. Oldest son Ben, who is our protagonist, played by Michael O’Keefe whose next role would be the lead in CADDYSHACK the following year. And three other children, including teen daughter Mary Anne played by Lisa Jane Persky and a preteen boy and girl. The whole family is packed up pre dawn to drive to the new military base somewhere in the South. Bull does not stop if you have to go to the bathroom or are hungry or thirsty. You need to be *disciplined*. And if the family wants to sing some song he doesn’t like, he sings over them as loudly as possible... he is in command!

Rounding out the cast is the great Stan Shaw, and this may have been the first film I noticed him in. He plays Toomer, a stuttering Black man who sells honey and flowers and becomes Ben's best friend in their new town. But this is the deep South in the 60s and whites and blacks don’t hang out together... and the antagonist in this subplot is Red played by David Keith (who should not be confused with Keith David). This also may have been the first time I ever saw Keith in a role, and he would go on to become a star and play the lead in LORDS OF DISCIPLINE (also based on a Conroy novel) as well as a bunch of other movies... before falling into B movies. When Jim and I were doing our Russian film, he was one of the guys we looked at to be the lead. He played *Elvis* in a Chris Colombus film, then ended up in B movies. No idea why. There are only so many leading men slots and maybe someone else came along and knocked him out of his position. Anyway, he gives a great performance as a complete racist dick in this film.

Here’s Bull pulling a practical joke when a superior officer wants him and his men to quiet down because they are disturbing the officer’s dinner...



Eldest son Ben is a senior in High School, about to turn 18, and has just made the Varsity basketball team in his new school. All he wants is the love and respect of his father... who is genetically incapable of giving him those things. You know all of those bastard Marine Basic Training Drill Instructors in movies? Now imagine that’s your dad. He shows you his love by belittling you and maybe even hitting you (to toughen you up). Ben’s problem to some extent is that he is his father’s son, and is competitive and strives to be the best (looking for his father’s respect). Well, that brings the two of them into conflict again and again, as Bull wants Ben to follow orders like a good Marine and Ben is struggling to become an adult. Early in the film, Bull tells Ben *exactly* what his adult life will be. He will go to college. He will join the Marines. He will meet a woman and start a family. He will do at least two tours of the Marines, after that he will stay because it is his destiny... or he will disappoint his father and do something else. Ben feels trapped in all of this.

One of the ways this conflict is demonstrated on screen is a father and son game of basketball. Hey, a place for Ben and his father to have a good time together. Only Bull does not lose at anything, ever. So when his son beats him, he does not take it well...



Ben continues to battle his father throughout the movie. No matter what he does, he can not live up to his father’s impossible expectations. There is a scene at the big basketball game where Ben is playing an amazing game, and a member of the other team intentionally fouls him, knocking him to the floor. Bull tears out of the stands and orders his son to knock that player down. Screaming at his injured son! Ben fights back by purposely missing both free throws. Which *infuriates* Bull, who paces the sidelines as if he’s the coach. When the opposing player gets the ball, Bull ORDERS Ben to take him to the floor. Again and again, until Ben finally knocks the player down... and breaks the player’s arm in the process. Ben is ejected from the game...

And gets chewed out by his coach for not being able to stand up to his father. Yeah, coach, you try it.

There’s a major subplot where Ben becomes involved in the fight between Toomer and racist Red. Bull orders him to stay out of it, but Toomer is his best friend and Bull has to do something. This subplot thread comes to a head when Red and his racist pals all grab guns and go to Toomer’s shack to show him who is boss... and Ben races across town to help his friend. Defying Bull’s orders. Bull decides it’s best to punish his son for doing the right thing.

When Ben turns 18, Bull takes him to the Officer’s Club on base... and we end up with a macho drinking battle between the two...



THE GREAT SANTINI is filled with great performances and manages to be funny and heart warming and heart breaking all at the same time. All of the characters are clearly drawn (Mary Anne uses sarcasm to deal with her problems fitting in to a new school every time Bull gets transferred, and will Bull himself), and you get a glimpse of the pre Civil Rights South where segregation was the law of the land and white people didn’t befriend black people without paying the consequences. The movie was made with the cooperation of the Marine Corps, and there are plenty of air combat drills in the film. I neglected to mention all of the airplane stuff because for me the movie is about the two Meechum men battling it out. Another one of those films I fear is forgotten...

Bill



No comments:

eXTReMe Tracker