Robert Duvall is an actor’s actor. What that means, the same as when you hear, “…this guy’s a director’s director,” or a “comedian’s comedian,” etc., is basically the actor may be less successful with audiences, to the point of “misunderstood,” but is such a master of the craft, that his skill can only truly be measured and appreciated by others who share that craft. When it comes to actors, the actor’s “actor” is usually someone who has a treasure trove of great supporting (“Character”) roles, rarely “leads.”
Robert Duvall has been kicking around Hollywood for so long it’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t on television or in film. He made his TV debut in 1959, and never looked back, although it took almost 10 more years before he was given “meaty” enough roles that audiences and critics took notice. Still, his film debut was in one of the most memorable and powerful scenes of any movie; that of Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. When that door swings closed and Boo cowers in the light, it is such a revelatory moment that no one who sees it, ever forgets.
Cast as the military patriarch in The Great Santini, Duvall “is” the role of Marine Airman Lt. Colonel Bull Meechum, a man who must come to terms with his heroism as a successful Phantom F-4 pilot and his failure as a father and husband. While Duvall’s performance crackles with the same intensity today as upon its initial release, the film does not. The Great Santini has grown somewhat stale since 1979.
There is no doubt that the script was constructed around and dependent upon Duvall, and that’s still what makes it worth seeing. Based on Pat Conroy’s book of the same name, Santini details the Meechum family’s growing pains as they move to an airbase in Beufort, South Carolina. The family has been on the move, from base to base, their entire lives. All four children are military kids, brought up and raised with razor-sharp discipline – which includes harassment, bullying and ridicule, and we see the varying levels of compliance, acceptance and denial within their “unit.’ Blythe Danner plays the wife with initial obeisance, but as Duvall’s alcoholism and violence surfaces and then permeates his behavior, she rebels as much as someone who was “carved” into this lifestyle, could in the early sixties.
From the start, we witness Beechum and his peers unbridled “machismo,” embracing the fratboy antics that Marines on leave (in film) almost always display. His commanding officers contain a barely accepting level of repugnance towards him; his daring and skill as a flight commander skating him through situations that would otherwise involve disciplinary action and even court martial.
Meechum’s oldest son Ben, played by Michael O’Keefe (Caddyshack, and Mr. Bonnie Raitt for a time) is portrayed with surprising complexity, not as simply a rebellious 18 year old, but a son at odds with his love and disgust for his father. As with other books by Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides), the story’s central conflict is between father and son. Meechum expects absolute perfection and subordination from his wife and children, and bristles whenever Ben shows any signs of dissention. A subplot between the family’s black maid’s son, Toomer, and the redneck locals who bully him into violence, becomes the rising action that motivates Ben to disobey his father and try to help. Father and son come face to face as Meechum is more obsessed with Ben’s disloyalty than the dead Toomy laying in their car.
Sometimes it’s the seemingly benign moments that best display a person’s true character, and so it is with the centerpiece scene in The Great Santini, when a one-on-one game between father and son turns from joking antagonism to outright abuse. When its clear Ben has finally bested his father in a game they’ve obviously played all their lives, Meechum can’t handle it, taunting, pushing and cheating to try and gain the upperhand. Finally the whole family has to come to his aid, separating them. That night, as Ben watches his father, practicing hoops in the rain, unable to handle the fact that anyone could excel in anything beyond him, Ben recognizes his idol has fallen.
Time has not been kind to this character study, with many of the scenes playing out in predictable “psychodrama” fashion. It’s not necessarily the film’s fault; the 1980s saw great advancements in society’s growing understanding of changing family dynamics, and we recognize these now cliché renderings of abuse and rage more commonly than in 1979. However, the final act of the film, delivering a somewhat undeserved forgiveness within the family and a contrived tragedy to sew up the story’s more interesting loose ends, leaves the viewer unsatisfied. The same could be said of Conroy’s Prince of Tides, whose central themes and therapy couch revelations are even more painfully and melodramatically rendered when viewed today.
But this is very much a side issue, since the reason to see The Great Santini again is Duvall. As with the very best actors; I could watch him go shopping with rapt attention. Most audiences wouldn’t want to waste their time. But any actor, studying the genius of another great actor; definitely would.
The recent Warner Archive Collection DVD has absolutely no extras besides a trailer, not even a scene selection menu. The transfer is excellent, providing crisp images of a perfect performance.
Editor’s note: The Great Santini is available on manufacture on demand (MOD) DVD from Warner Archive.
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