Friday, August 7, 2020

Soaring and Crashing with The Great Santini

War is hell, but perhaps there are some for whom peace is worse. One such is Lt Colonel Wilbur “Bull” Meechum of the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pat Conroy novel that became a 1978 film. Meechum, who thrives on being in command (of his fighter jet, his men, all the members of his family) enjoys dubbing himself The Great Santini when he’s pulled off some flashy stunt. He’s played with panache by the always impressive Robert Duvall, who was Oscar-nominated for this role three years before he took home the statuette for Tender Mercies. A supporting actor nomination went to young Michael O’Keefe, for playing Meechum’s oldest son.

 O’Keefe, whose role is that of a sensitive high school senior with a talent for basketball, is in fact the eldest of seven children from a devout Irish Catholic household. Which made him an ideal choice to play Ben, the eldest of four kids reined in by their mother’s gentle devotion as well as their father’s strict, elaborate codes of conduct. The Great Santini treats his wife and children like members of his squadron, issuing commands, barking out reprimands, sometimes engaging in horseplay but always with the sense that he’s the one in charge. In an especially dramatic segment, a friendly one-on-one backyard basketball game between father and son turns into a violent confrontation when Meechum can’t bear being defeated by his own kid. The ramifications of this moment are huge, resulting in a disaster when Ben takes the court for real as part of his high school team.

 Though the film has other plot strands, its heart is in these fraught father/son clashes. That’s doubtless because Pat Conroy, the author of the original novel, was writing close to the bone, about his own memories as the eldest son of a Marine flyboy father whose commitment to military discipline, as well as military hijinks, threatened to tear a family apart. The word is that when the novel was published in 1976, other Conroys took umbrage at this spilling of family secrets, like Donald Conroy’s violent streak and his excessive drinking. Some in the family apparently picketed book signings, passing out leaflets urging would-be patrons to avoid buying Pat’s novel. Conroy has said that in later years his father would, with apparent good humor, autograph copies as follows: "That boy of mine sure has a vivid imagination. Ol' lovable, likable Col. Don Conroy, USMC (Ret.), the Great Santini." Happily, I’ve heard that in later years—partly as a response to the novel—the elder Conroy became a kinder and gentler man.

I was delighted to spot in the cast of The Great Santini (along with the always luminous Blythe Danner as Meechum’s Southern-born wife) an old Roger Corman chum of mine, Stan Shaw. Stan began his film career in 1974 with Corman blaxploitation flicks like Truck Turner and TNT Jackson. I knew him from the latter, in which—as the male lead--he enjoys both torrid sex scenes and violent kung fu clashes with the bodacious Jeanne Bell. When we worked together on publicity releases, I was impressed at Stan’s far-ranging artistic ambitions. Not content simply to be the hero or the bad guy, he aspired to do it all, even if this meant playing a baby, playing a dog. Still working, he’s had a long and varied career, mostly in television, small roles, and small films. In The Great Santini he plays Ben’s unlikely buddy, a sweet and simple soul who loves nature but falls prey to a white bully in one of the pivotal moments of Ben’s impressionable young life. 






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