ON SCREEN

The Great Santini

starring Robert Duvall, Blythe Danner, Michael O'Keefe, Lisa Jane Persky, and Stan Shaw; based on the novel by Pat Conroy; written and directed by Lewis John Carlino.

Santini isn't his real name; it's the nom de guerre (literally) of "Bull" Meecham, Marine colonel, pilot extraordinaire, drunk and practical joker, outrageous egomaniac, and father of a large family which he likes to run like a boot camp. Ben, his oldest boy, is a gentle soul who's beginning to chafe under the discipline, to say nothing of his father's determination to mold him in his own macho image.

This is the stuff of classic (not to say old-hat) family drama, and Carlino makes it work primarily by putting Duvall and O'Keefe in front of the camera as father and son and letting them have at each other, with Danner, the long-suffering mother and wife, as occasional reluctant referee. Since all three are tremendous, it comes off beautifully. Duvall, in a full-voiced extension of his Kilgore character in Apocolypse Now, is one of the recent movies' great eccentrics, and O'Keefe foils him by showing more range than an actor his age deserves to have.

What is most likely to upset people who see Santini is the refusal, as in life, of its volatile mix of comedy and tragedy to fall into a convenient narrative pattern. That and the lack of superstar names probably explain the film's failure in six test markets, prompting Orion to sell it to cable before they could be persuaded to give it a New York opening. Thanks to the huge success of that engagement, you may at last get your chance to see it in a local theatre.