Pat Conroy has had a number of his fine novels (which tend to be semi-autobiographical) turned into excellent movies. One of my favorite ones is Conrack, a “must see” if you are interested in education. But if you are interested in family dynamics, then you can’t beat The Great Santini.
The Great Santini is Bull Meechum, played brilliantly by Robert Duvall, one of our finest actors. He is a Marine fighter pilot and one of the best if not the best. He is now a Lt. Colonel when the story starts and has a wife and four children, the oldest being Ben, a teenager. The movie starts out in Mardrid Spain in 1962 at a going-away party for Bull at a fancy restaurant. The Marine pilots are being rowdy and a higher-ranking naval officer tells them to hold it down. Instead of complying, Bull pulls a stunt that eventually gets him into hot water once again. But that is who Bull is---daring, unconventional, outrageous. He loves taking risks! That is at the very heart of why he is such a great warrior and at the heart of why he has been passed over for promotion. This is a peacetime Marine Corps that is more concerned with decorum than with how many planes you are able to shoot down. Officers with far less skill are now his superior officers---a fact that must be very galling for The Great Santini. Bull Meechum shot down the enemy in World War II in the 1940s, then in Korea in the 1950s, but now in the 1960s he has no war to fight, no war to direct his talents toward, to reap the rewards of battle from, to be fulfilled, to have the excitement and glory that can only come through the terrible greatness of kill-or-be-killed adrenaline rushes.
He copes with his frustration by drinking too much and being too demanding and controlling of his family. The tension at times between Bull and Ben is over the top and leads to Ben doing things he should not do such as injuring another basketball player in a game because his father, somewhat drunk, tells him to go after the other player. It is the task of every adolescent to ultimately break free, to move out and become an independent person. That is at the heart of the struggle between Bull and Ben.
On another level we see a variety of characters dealing with anger management issues. We see Tooma, who stutters, being goaded by Red, a local “redneck” who insults Tooma and in one scene destroys the honey Tooma has for sale just to show Tooma that Red can do anything he wants. Tooma finally explodes and demonstrates that he can kill Red if he wants to, before letting him go unhurt except for Red’s bruised ego.
Red has to balance the books and goes after Tooma with a group of his buddies. However, Tooma is expecting this and has planned how to deal with Red by releasing bees that attack him. Red is stung and his friends go home but he is determined to even things up and starts shooting Tooma’s dogs and accidentally hits Tooma. The dogs are released and attack Red and kill him…but Tooma also dies.
While this is going on, Ben finds out that Tooma is in trouble and goes to help him despite orders from his father to stay out of it. Ben arrives after Tooma has been shot, but his actions are ones that are very important because he has done this against his father’s orders---while at the same time doing what he thought a Meechum, as brought up by his father, would do under these circumstances.
The oldest Meechum girl, a year or so younger than Ben, uses her wit and delivers barbs at her father as her way of dealing with the anger he helps create in her.
The mother tolerates Bull’s behavior, tries to get her children to understand Bull, to see through his bullying and understand that Bull loves all of his family dearly, but just is unable to express it effectively. After a basketball one-on-one game with his Dad, in which Ben beats his Dad for the first time ever, Bull doesn’t take the loss gracefully but harasses Ben, threatens his wife, and then for hours continues on practicing alone while Ben and his Mother watch from upstairs. The mother remarks to Ben: “You have a strange father, Ben. That’s his way of saying he’s sorry.”
A telling scene is where Ben goes looking for his drunken father on orders from his mother after a big family fight. He finds him and begins to understand that his father is not some terrible monster after all. His drunken father is mumbling that: “It’s dangerous out there.” He also expresses how the mother is making Ben too gentle for the tough world that Ben will have to face. Ben says he understands now and Ben tells his father he loves him. The tough old Marine rejects this and Ben repeats it over and over as the father staggers towards home being taunted by Ben’s expression of love.
So, different people deal with anger management in different ways. So, different people express love in different ways. Our task is to appreciate what a person has to offer, even if it doesn’t fit what we exactly would like. This is acceptance, one of the most wonderful aspects of profound love. At the end, Bull dies because his plane catches on fire and he is unwilling to bring it down over the town, in short, he sacrifices his life to protect others---something he has done all of his life. After the funeral, the family packs up and leaves at 3am in the morning---because that is the way Bull would have done it. They all now accept their father and are ready to go on without him but still he will be present in their lives---fortunately, thanks in large measure to the Mother, he will be fondly remembered for always striving to be the very best he could be and trying to encourage his children along the same lines. Bull always felt the mother was too gentle with the children, but in point of fact, she was the one who helped create balance in the family. The children will grow up and be great---thanks to the Mother’s tenderness and the Father’s pushing. How do I know this? Because this story is based on Conroy’s life and he turned into an outstanding novelist. Also, the book’s title is The Great Santini, not the great son Ben. Conroy is writing about his father and how his father was someone he learned to understand and eventually love and accept.
Another way of looking at the film relates to the work of Sun-tzu. For thousands of years military leaders have been studying his Art of War and the wisdom therein. Keep in mind, therefore, that all humans are more alike than different---and that this has been true for thousands of years---otherwise Sun-tzu’s wisdom would not be still published and studied. One of the key lessons that Sun-tzu emphasizes is the importance of self-awareness among military leaders. This is where Bull Meechum fails. Yes, he is a great warrior and can shoot down the enemy better than others. But, without self-awareness, you may win the battle only to lose the war. Bull can’t see how self-destructive he is and doesn’t see any alternatives. If he could be gentler, more responsive to the emotional needs of his family, he would not be less of a man, less of a warrior. Just the opposite would happen. He would be more successful, not less. This is the balance that he so desperately needs and fails to achieve in his life.
The film was made in 1980. Blythe Danner plays the mother. Michael O’Keefe is the son, Ben. Lewis John Carlino wrote the screenplay based on Conroy’s novel and also Directed the film. Duvall was nominated for the best actor Academy Award and O’Keefe was nominated for best supporting actor. Duvall lost out to DeNiro for his powerful role in Raging Bull. O’Keefe lost out to Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People, another excellent movie about a dysfunctional family.