Great Santini, The (1980): Carlino’s Family Melodrama, Starring Duvall and Michael O’Keefe in Oscar Nominated Performances

Set in 1962, The Great Santini, written and directed by Lewis John Carlino, is an old-fashioned family melodrama, worth seeing for the powerful performances by the entire ensemble.
Robert Duvall shines as the military patriarch, Blythe Danner scores as his sensitive and understanding wife, and so do Michael O’Keefe as the teenage son, and Lisa Jane Persky as the younger daughter.
Grade: B (***1/2 out pf *****)
he Great Santini
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Theatrical release poster
A domestic drama about inter-generational strife, the narrative is shapeless and episodic, though consisting of some powerful sequences.
The scenario is based on Pat Conroy’s autobiographical novel, with the Duvall’s character inspired by the author’s real-life father.
Duvall, then at the peak of his career, right after the making Coppola’s “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now,” gives a dominant performance as the bored and idle marine pilot, who endlessly bullies his son, in and out the basketball court at the back yard of their house, in what amounts to a series of macho rituals.
Most Powerful Scene
On the basketball court at school, Ben is a dominant player.  But in the one-on-one games at home, his father won’t let him win, using physical tactics and humiliating the boy, bouncing the ball off his head, and yelling at his other kids and wife for interfering.  Ben finally beats him in basketball, but rather than show pride in his son’s dedication, he berates and insults him. Later that night, Ben observes his father practicing basketball alone in the driveway.
Spoiler Alert
Meechum’s inability to understand his son’s sensitive nature, makes their relationship strained.  The Great Santini flies one last mission, a military maneuver, which proves fatal. When Meechum’s jet has an engine failure he chooses to crash it into the sea rather than eject and risk it crashing into a nearby town.
After his father’s death and funeral the family packs up and leaves town, with Ben assuming the role of his late father, becoming the “man” of the house, a role his father always wanted him to be.
Though well-received by the critics, the movie received only limited theatrical release, and failed at the box-office.  It was later sold to the then0rising cabler, HBO, which played the picture with great success for many months.
Oscar Alert
Oscar Nominations: 2
Actor: Robert Duvall
Supporting Actor: Michael O’Keefe
Oscar Awards: None
Oscar Context:
In 1980, the winner of the Best Actor Oscar was Robert De Niro in Scorsese’s masterpiece, “Raging Bull,” in a race that also included John Hurt in “The Elephant Man,” Jack Lemmon in “Tribute,” and Peter O’Toole in “The Stunt Man.”
Michael O’Keefe, then only 25, lost the Supporting Actor Oscar to another young actor who played a troubled youth in a father-son melodrama, Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People,” which also won Best Picture and Best Director.


Orion Pictures (Bing Crosby Production)

Directed by Lewis John Carlino
Produced by Charles A. Pratt
Screenplay by Carlino, based on The Great Santini by Pat Conroy
Music by Elmer Bernstein
Cinematography Ralph Woolsey
Edited by Houseley Stevenson, Jr.

Distributed by Orion Pictures
Release date: October 26, 1979

Running time: 115 minutes
Box office $4.7 million

Robert Duvall as “Bull” Meechum
Blythe Danner as Lillian Meechum
Michael O’Keefe as Ben Meechum
Stan Shaw as Toomer Smalls
Brian Andrews as Matthew Meechum
Paul Gleason as Lt. Sammy
Julie Anne Haddock as Karen Meechum
David Keith as Red Pettus
Paul Mantee as Col. Virgil Hedgepath
Theresa Merritt as Arrabelle Smalls
Lisa Jane Persky as Mary Anne Meechum
Michael Strong as Col. Varney
Joe Dorsey as Coach Spinks