Lt. Colonel Bull Meechum giving his four children a set of orders.
War films are an exemplary staple of modern cinema. Films like Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Saving Private Ryan are some of the greatest in history. Good war films take deep, personal and unflinching looks at the effects, causes, and implications of conflict. They feature characters who are changed not only physically but emotionally by killing and the witnessing of it. Societal effects are examined, but it is the human cost of war that is looked at hardest. Combat, both the actual depiction of it and the after, is examined or shown in a great deal of war films but never omitted. Certain great war films, show what happens well beyond the front lines and show the true lasting effects of war. The Great Santini is one such film.
The four Meechum children, Matthew, Mary Ann, Karen, and Ben.
The story is much more than a beginning and ending. It is a story about a father’s relationship with his family and more importantly, his eldest son. Bull Meechum is known as “The Great Santini,” an ace fighter pilot and tough as nails Marine. The film takes place before the start of the Vietnam War, in 1962. Meechum moves his family to a base in Beaufort, South Carolina and expects them to take to their new town with exacting fervor. Along the way, Meechum and his son butt heads on more than one occasion as a father attempts to mold his son into his own image. What unfolds is a man attempting to come to terms with his ways and family.
The family in the kitchen.
Duvall’s performance as Meechum is the true shining star of the film. He brings to the character a sense of weight and gravity that give The Great Santini more than just a stern face. At times he is funny, at others he’s stern and harsh. You hate what he does to his family yet hope he can change. Meechum’s a man who loves his family, yet does so in his own way. The military is all he knows and it’s code is the only he can seem to impart on his children and wife. Micheal O’Keefe as the eldest Meechum and Blythe Danner as Lillian also give outstanding performances. Ben Meechum is a kid who just wants to be accepted by and impress his father. Lillian knows her husband can be harsh but accepts his ways and puts her best on for the children.
Bull tells Ben and his fellow basketball team members his expectations.
The really interesting part about this film is that it deals more with military culture than war itself. Labeling it a war film is correct in a sense but also misleading. The Great Santini is more a film about the military culture and its effects on families than about war itself. Meechum is never in combat during the film yet he cannot separate his military self from his family self. The film starkly examines how the military complex can consume a person and become all they know. Meechum never knows when to stop being a commanding officer and start being a father.
Ben’s team warming up for their big rivalry basketball game.
Bull and Ben play a game of one-on-one basketball as the rest of the family watches.
The most notable chucks scene is also one of the film’s most important. It involves a one-on-one game of basketball between Bull and Ben. Ben, sporting all white low cut chucks, is a star basketball player at his high school yet has never been able to beat his father. Bull, sporting black high tops, talks trash and even plays dirty as his son gets close to beating him. After seemingly losing, Bull flips a switch and taunts his son by tossing a ball off his head, almost hitting his wife and berating his daughter.
Lilian takes the ball away when Bull becomes unreasonable after losing to Ben.
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