Robert Duvall was mostly known for brilliant supporting performances until the title role in this melodramatic family story finally allowed the singular actor to display a full spectrum of colors. Portraying U.S. Marine Corps pilot Lt. Col. “Bull” Meechum, Duvall showboats while displaying the character’s mischievous side, torments innocents when exhibiting the man’s mean streak, and unravels while revealing the character’s deep-rooted psychological turbulence. Duvall was entrusted with only one more equally dimensional role—in the poetic character study Tender Mercies (1983)—before slipping into a long run of high-paying but largely unchallenging supporting roles in the ’80s and early ’90s. Given this set of circumstances, The Great Santini and Tender Mercies remain two of the most important artifacts demonstrating Duvall’s unique gifts at full power.
Adapted by Lewis John Carlino (who also directed) and Herman Raucher from a semiautobiographical novel by Pat Conroy, The Great Santini takes place in 1962 South Carolina. Meechum, whose nickname is “The Great Santini” even though he’s Irish, is a hard-driving soldier who feels lost between wars. Unable to take out his aggressions on enemy combatants, Meechum bullies his family even as his wife, Lillian (Blythe Danner), and their four kids adjust to life in a new city. Receiving special abuse is Meechum’s oldest son, Ben (Michael O’Keefe), a high-school basketball player struggling to understand why his father is such a hero on the battlefield and such a monster at home.
Carlino, who only directed three films (the others are the erotic 1976 drama The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sa and the flimsy 1986 teen-sex comedy Class), presents Conroy’s narrative in a beautifully unvarnished way, so the best moments in The Great Santini are the most intimate ones. For instance, it’s hard to forget the brutal scene of Meechum repeatedly bouncing a basketball against Ben’s head, forcing the boy to cry as a means of validating Meechum’s alpha-male role. In fact, nearly every scene featuring Duvall is memorable, because he creates such a full-blooded characterization—Duvall preens, rages, struts, yells and generally releases his character’s sociopathic id, incarnating a mini-Patton without a worthy adversary. And yet for all of the flamboyance the actor brings to the role, the true beauty of Duvall’s performance is the deep sympathy he conveys for Meechum; with Duvall as our guide into this man’s troubled soul, we learn to love a character who does hateful things.
Young costar O’Keefe, appearing in one of his fist features after several years of TV work, gives as good as he gets, offering plaintive sincerity to counter Duvall’s masterful blend of personality traits. The elegant Danner, meanwhile, reveals the fortitude that allows her character to thrive in a difficult marriage. The Great Santini is so dramatically compelling and emotionally truthful that it seems a shame to note its flaws, but there’s no denying the contrived nature of a subplot involving Ben’s black friend, Toomer (Stan Shaw). Injecting wobbly elements of racism, sacrifice, and tragedy into the story, the subplot eventually leads someplace important, but getting there isn’t the smoothest ride. That said, Shaw’s work is deeply affecting, and costar David Keith, who figures in the subplot, makes a vivid bad guy. The bottom line, however, is that The Great Santini is robust entertainment powered by extraordinary acting. Like its main character, the movie is imperfect and impossible to ignore.
The Great Santini: RIGHT ON