The four Meechum kids and their mother move from Marine post to Marine post, following their father, a pilot, in the peaceful years before the Vietnam war. Bull Meechum, the self-described "great Santini," is manic: a martinet at once enthusiastic and abusive of his family. In Beaufort, South Carolina, Bull is assigned to whip into shape a squadron of pilots, and Ben makes friends with Toomer, a slow-talking Black youth. Racial and family tensions explode in violence, and Ben must find a way to make peace with his father.
THE GREAT SANTINI is a tremendous book. I was a big fan of it and I liked it so much I didn't want to watch the film for fear of not liking it. But I finally took the plunge and found the only copy of the film left in Toronto, an old VHS copy from the library, and popped in it to my now ancient VCR machine in early 2011 and watched it.
And I of course was disappointed. I didn't think the film was terrible, but I also didn't think it went all that far with its storyline conflicts like it did in the book.
I noticed that the US Navy gave their support to the film and let them shoot a lot of its scenes on their facilities and that made a lot of sense to me. Because there was no way there were going to give permission about a film about a high ranking Navy officer who is really a bad guy who likes to bully his wife and kids.
So I'll assume the producers in 1979 played it a bit safe and didn't make THE GREAT SANTINI character all that bad so they could get their support from the Navy. He pushes his son a bit too far, yes, but he does it with love! And he believed in equality of the races and helped out the black population. An uncommon thing in the deep south in the 1960s for a recognized white man helping out any "colored" folk. And he was a devoted husband to his wife, while also showing bedroom scenes between the two that said that perhaps THE GREAT SANTINI's nickname is bedroom related!
In the book, the dad is a bit rougher around the edges. He's a bully to anyone that is below him in rank or in strength. He pushes his kids around because he can and he needs to do it in order to feel respect. And respect is what he's always after. Of course the irony is that's the last thing people feel about him. In fact, all of his kids just want him to go away.
In the film, they rationalize his behavior when he gives a monolog to his friend at a bar about how he's a soldier without a war. And he doesn't know what to do with his energy. That's a bit of a stretch but perhaps it's what's true in the soul of the character.
Writer Pat Conroy was telling his own story between the relationship with his father. And in fact, the book did wonders for their relationship as the father began to understand the bully that he was when reading the book. Donald Conroy would often accompany his son to book signings, and would sign his son's novels with the signature, "Donald Conroy - The Great Santini."
I wished that the film centered more on the major theme of the book with the father thinking that he's doing the best thing for his son by bullying him. He thinks that's what best for the development of his kids. That's his ideology. He doesn't know that he's causing more harm than good. What he gets rewarded for in his job is what he eventually will get punished for with his family as they will all lose respect for him. That's an interesting story to tell for a film.
But THE GREAT SANTINI the movie hums and haws a bit and eventually we like the dad. But we're really not supposed to. At least that's what the book is about.