AMERICA CAN do anything. Americans are more capable than any other people. America's army is the biggest and most advanced in the world. Americans always win their wars. In fact, Americans always win.
That was you, America, before the Vietnam war: welling with arrogance, and unwilling to take a licking. In The Great Santini, writer/director Louis John Carlino has personified the America of the early '60s as extremist, an example of what the excessive confidence and arrogance becomes when it possess men. But The Great Santini is more than a snapshot of an era; it is an exposition of the state of racial relations in the South, a treatment of adolescence in a time of changing and conflicting values, and a movie about death. With this many themes, it takes on the aspect of a great forest with numerous trails that set off in different directions, occasionally cross at unexpected moments, but never all converge at a final point. While a trip through such a forest might be a diverting way to spend a few hours, it is annoying to find that none of the trails leads anywhere. The problem with The Great Santini is that no single theme is sufficiently developed to stand alone as the idea behind the film.
Robert Duvall brings great strength to the movie as Bull Meechum, a Marine pilot who, after flying in Europe for NATO, returns to his family in the States. He calls himself the Great Santini, convinced of his worthiness of the grandiose title in a friendly, arrogant sort of way. Keyed up by an unlimited confidence and a "can-do" attitude, what makes Meechum tick is the same patriotic puffery that inspired Lyndon Johnson. His 17-year-old son, his wife, his pubescent daughter and smallest son, find it difficult to receive back into the family a father who seems more monstrous than human to them.
IN ONE OF the movie's most effective scenes, a confrontation between father and son (Michael O'Keefe) punches home the family's problems. As his wife, Lillian (Blythe Danner), and the rest of the family watches, Metchum reveals the ugliness of his desire, his will, his need to win when the refuses to admit defeat in a game of basketball against his son. After playing dirty in the first place, he taunts his son for being a sissy, a homosexual, and a girl, because the boy will not continue to keep playing until the father wins. Meechum shoves his wife to the ground and kicks his other children away when they protest that his son has beaten him fair and square. The situation defuses quietly after the initial heat--but the incident rips wide open a blister in the family that has festered since Bull Meechum's return, sowing the seeds of hatred that will later torment the characters with guilt.
Consistently throughout The Great Santini, in this scene as in others, Duvall, Danner, and O'Keefe save an inferior screenplay with their almost uniformly excellent performances. But bad editing also diminishes the impact their talents have on the film. These problems riddle the scenes between O'Keefe and Stan Shaw, who plays Toomer, a stuttering Black "boy" who, together with his mother, the Meechum's maid, and 14 or so large German shepherd dogs trained to attack white folks, lives in a trailer on the outskirts of the town.
The problems with this subplot transcend technical incompetency, however: the treatment of the race problem is offensive. The Blacks in the film are ridiculously stereotyped; Toomer, known as a "boy," even to young Meechum, who is portrayed as one of Toomer's closest friends; Toomer's mother, an enormous Black woman who loves her job as a maid, and is obsequious in her gratitude toward Mee chum for going out late one night to help Toomer defend himself against some local budding Klansmen. Carlino destroys the impact of the protest against the treatment of Blacks by portraying the grateful nigger, grateful to the white men who have made him a present of his inalienable rights, and by the sickening sentimentality that pervades scenes between whites and Blacks.
SUDDENLY, without transition or explanation, two trails in the forest of The Great Santini meet, and the audience finds itself five miles above land in the cockpit of Meechum's airplane during a training run. The film has run out of steam on race relations, and so abruptly resumes its portrayal of the problems encountered by a warrior without a war. Meechum, reminding himself several times that he is the Great Santini, runs into engine trouble while he has departed from his flight plan to do some aerodynamic acrobatics, and he dies in the crash--ostensibly because he stays with his machine until he has assured himself that the wreckage will not fall over inhabited land.
Meechum may die, but the problem of the "can-do" war mentality is not resolved. The Great Santini portrays death as the outcome of Bull Meechum's arrogant, overconfident life. But it is an accidental death, and no one is transformed as a result. The final shot in the film is the same as the beginning: the family, minus Dad, travelling to a new home in a different city. Carlino examines Meechum's mentality, then throws up his hands and says, "So what?"
The Great Santini successfully contrasts the personal and military confidence of the late fifties and early sixties with the widespread concern and growing doubt of the eighties about American supremacy. But the bramble of conflicting, supposedly interlocking themes, and technical difficulties dimish the impact of the work. The Great Santini could be a fascinating way to spend a few hours, but don't be surprised if you get lost, or if you wind up back where you started.