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Great Santini

Great Santini(1979)

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teaser Great Santini (1979)

Southern writer Pat Conroy's novels have long been worthy material for films: Conrack (1974, from The Water Is Wide), The Lords of Discipline (1983), and the Oscar-nominated The Prince of Tides (1991). There was also a 2006 television adaptation of The Water Is Wide that hewed a little more closely to the novel's autobiographical details. The best translation from page to screen, however, is The Great Santini (1979), itself based so closely on the author's young life and family that his father, the model for the lead character, told his son, upon hearing of the Academy Award nominations for Robert Duvall as Best Actor and Michael O'Keefe as Best Supporting Actor, "You and me got nominated for Academy Awards, your mother didn't get squat."

Conroy's story follows the barely fictional Meechum family (spelled "Meecham" in the book): father Lt. Col. "Bull" Meechum, an abusive, autocratic Air Force pilot self-nicknamed The Great Santini; his long-suffering wife Lillian; his eldest son Ben, the character based on Conroy and the brunt of most of his father's militaristic badgering; and three younger children. As the Meechums try to settle into their new home in South Carolina in the years just before the Vietnam War, family and racial tensions explode, forcing Ben to come to terms with his father.

Conroy said his father hated the book but loved the fact that Duvall played him in the movie. "He took full credit for Duvall's career," Conroy said recently. The actor, in fact, had done pretty well for nearly 20 years prior to this picture, first in acclaimed television dramas, followed by his film debut as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), much more TV work, and his high-profile roles in the first two Godfather movies and Apocalypse Now (1979), earning two Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe Award along the way. Nevertheless, Warner Bros. executives didn't consider Duvall--and certainly none of his co-stars--to be bankable enough to sell a picture with, in their view, an equally unmarketable plot. It was premiered in Beaufort, S.C., where it was filmed, and opened to nearly empty houses in the Carolinas. The studio thought the problem was that the title made it sound like a circus movie, so they tested it as "Sons and Heroes" in Indiana, "Reaching Out" in Rockford, Illinois, and "The Ace" in Peoria, where it fared well enough to keep that title but not enough to keep it from being pulled from theatrical distribution and its airline and cable rights sold to recoup the losses.

Producer Charles Pratt was not giving up so easily. He raised enough money to have it released under the original title in New York, where it did steady business and got excellent reviews. The picture's box office fate was sealed, however, by the cable deal with HBO, where it was aired two weeks later. Audiences stopped coming after that.

Nevertheless, the film's reputation didn't suffer, and it's still admired to the present day. Critic Roger Ebert summed up its appeal in his review: "Like almost all my favorite films, The Great Santini is about people more than it's about a story. It's a study of several characters, most unforgettably the Great Santini himself, played by Robert Duvall. ... There are moments so unpredictable and yet so natural they feel just like the spontaneity of life itself."

The script was adapted from Conroy's book by its director, Lewis John Carlino, with an uncredited assist from Herman Raucher (Summer of '42, 1971). The minute change in the family name notwithstanding, most of the details of the novel stayed intact, except for the loss of a key character, Ben's Jewish friend Sammy.

The Meechum house in the film is the same one later used in The Big Chill (1983). The family who lived in the historic structure at the time were under contract to remain in the home throughout the three-month shoot in order to protect the production company from liability for pre-existing damages in the nearly 130-year-old building. When principal photography wrapped, the company paid to have the house repainted and the floors refinished.

Blythe Danner, the actor passed over by the Academy for her performance as mother Lillian Meechum, got another chance at a Conroy adaptation playing Nick Nolte's wife in The Prince of Tides (1991). Michael O'Keefe, who played the character the author based on himself, went directly from this picture to Caddyshack (1980) and has had a busy career ever since.

In 2013, Conroy made an offer to the film's three principals and Lisa Jane Persky, who played the family's eldest daughter. He said he would grant free film rights to his non-fiction family memoir The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son if they would agree to appear. As of this writing, no progress has been made on this proposal.

Director: Lewis John Carlino
Producer: Charles A. Pratt
Screenplay: Lewis John Carlino, Herman Raucher (uncredited), based on the book by Pat Conroy
Cinematography: Ralph Woolsey
Editing: Houseley Stevenson
Production Design: Jack Poplin
Original Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Robert Duvall (Bull Meechum), Michael O'Keefe (Ben Meechum), Blythe Danner (Lillian Meechum), Lisa Jane Persky (Mary Anne Meechum), David Keith (Red Petus)

By Rob Nixon

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