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Thursday, August 1, 2013

'The Great Santini:' Jarhead Basketball Diaries

The Great Santini
Warner Archive's DVD release of the truly awesome 1979 "warrior without a war" drama "The Great Santini" further cements Archive's status as a top provider of classic films. Depriving nominees Robert Duvall and Michael O'Keefe Oscars for their respective portrayals of alcoholic Marine flying ace "Bull" Meechum who treats his family like his jarheads and said ace's emotionally and physically abused 18 year-old son Ben is almost upsetting as the mistreatment that Bull inflicts on his family.

The filmmakers and the author Pat Conroy, who wrote the bestselling novel on which "Santini" is based, pull off the Santini-caliber trick of presenting a story that could easily be a Lifetime movie starring C-List television actors into a "desert island" film.

Although the compelling events and the exceptional casting contribute to this success, the extraordinary nature of "Santini" stems from it realistic nature. Many of us know career military officers who continue bringing their work home long after they leave the service, a father's conflicting desire for his son to be a man but remain subservient seems universal, and male mid-life crises that strain family relations are almost inevitable.

Bull's story is that his flying prowess in World War II earns him the Santini nickname; his stock has fallen in the period between the end of that conflict and 1962 largely due to his drinking. Lacking the confidence and regard of his new commanding officer related to Bull's transfer to a position as the leader of a misfit fighter pilot squadron does not help matters for this Willy Loman of the skies.

Bull's myriad challenges regarding his role as the head of his family include his uber-macho persona, highly invasive Marine training, and super-powered personal demons regarding his personal shortcomings and failures. He only knows how to guide by barking orders and to show affection through praising his wife, played by Blythe Danner, and children in the same manner that he would acknowledge success by a squadron member.

Like every good drama, "Santini" begins on a relatively happy note. The Meechum clan has accepted their annual move to a new community, Bull is in decent humor, and Ben is not yet a threat to his father.

Additionally, the depiction of events that occur during Bull's first 15 minutes at his new assignment are fall-on-the-floor funny. Nothing beats the toughest of the toughest and straightest of the straightest engaging in frat boy style homoerotic hijinks and bantering for good humor. On a deeper level, these scenes clearly show that Bull relates much better to his fellow officers than to his family.

A series of setbacks, which include the classic scene provided below courtesy of YouTube in which Ben beats his father at basketball for the first time, 'roids up Bull's frustration and related abuse. 

The subsequent scenes show the decline and fall of the Great Santini. This includes another dramatic confrontation with Ben that parallels the pivotal one-on-one basketball game. Just about every son (and many daughters) can relate to the raw emotion that Ben exhibits and to Bull's reaction.

Ben's other moment to shine involves the father-son celebration of Ben's 18th birthday. A scene that starts out tense literally ends up with the younger Meechum literally drunk off his butt.

"Santini's" conclusion is very fitting for the character and shows that the Meechums are a military family to the end.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Santini" is welcome to email me.