The Great Santini (1979)

I sometimes tell people that my mother was like Mary Tyler Moore’s Beth from Ordinary People and my father like Robert Duvall’s Bull Meechum from The Great Santini. It’s a harsh characterization, not completely accurate, and, even though it does have a grain of truth, it’s mostly the result of how both movies were in constant rotation on HBO in the early 1980s. Ordinary People framed my image of the toxic feminine. The Great Santini framed my image of the toxic masculine.

The Great Santini opens with a group of United States Marines stationed in Spain in 1962. Franco, unmentioned, is still dictator. Vietnam lurks ahead in the not too distant future. Castro is consolidating power in Cuba. The United States Marines are having a going away party for Lt. Col. Wilbur “Bull” Meechum. Meechum is a veteran, a popular, charismatic senior officer. He is also, as we shall soon see, a 40-year-old fraternity boy. After a waiter, then a senior United States naval officer, comes into their private room to ask, then order them to quiet down, Meechum and his buddies play a practical joke on the other people in the restaurant. They stagger out into the main dining room, drunk, and pretending to be even more drunk. There’s a band playing. Meechum grabs a woman and forces her to dance with him. She pulls away, indignant, then sits back down. Meechum, who had hidden an open can of cream of mushroom soup under his jacket, then walks up to the stage, and pretends to be sick. He then “throws up,” spilling the can of cream of mushroom soup. His fellow Marines start barking, get down on their hands and knees, and drink up the soup as if they were dogs drinking up their own vomit. It’s all good “fun and games” for the “men” who operate multi-million dollar fighter aircraft.

The scene changes to a military airport in Atlanta Georgia. Lillian, Meechum’s wife, Blythe Danner, Ben, his oldest son, Michael O’Keefe, younger son and two daughters are waiting for his plane to arrive. Anybody who’s seen the famous image of an American POW greeted by his family upon his return from Vietnam will immediately recognize the image. Meechum has never been a POW, and the war in Vietnam hasn’t even started, but the director Lewis John Carlino is reminding us exactly where we are in history. The conflict between the generations that will soon erupt in the streets and on the college campuses is also brewing in the Meechum between Meechum and his older son Ben.

It’s much easier to misinterpret The Great Santini than it is to misinterpret Ordinary People. If the family in Ordinary people, that icy, funereal trio of suburban Chicago WASPs, is so utterly cold and loveless that we realize from the very beginning it needs to crack up, the family in The Great Satini is a lot more complex. Lillian Meechum, and Blythe Danner is a much better actress than her daughter Gwynneth Paltrow, is a southern “lady.” She’s warm, gracious, kind, nothing like Mary Tyler Moore’s vicious upper-class Yankee bitch. What’s more, she and her husband, while they may fight, trade blows, and yell insults, genuinely love each other. After we see them in a post coital embrace, a long married couple in their 40s who still sleep with each other, they wake up, pile into a station wagon, and drive north to Beaufort, South Carolina and the 321st fighter squadron, which Meechum has been brought back to the United States to command. They sing. Lillian, a southerner starts out with Dixie, and Meechum, a Yankee, drowns her out with Battle Hymn of the Republic.

If the symbolism is a bit heavy handed, it’s effective at making its point. Beaufort, which is near the famous Marine Corps base at Parris Island, is not Selma Alabama, or Philadelphia Mississippi. It’s part of the Sea Islands. It has a substantial black population and was the site of a famous experiment in Radical Reconstruction. The Marine Corps means there’s a substantial presence of the federal government. This isn’t a grim, backwoods redneck hellhole with night riders and burning crosses. It’s a gorgeous old Tidewater city with gigantic old plantation houses, a substantial population of people from outside the south, and no obvious signs of Jim Crow.

That said, racism, as we will see in the film’s climax, is still front and center. After Meechum rents a huge ante-bellum plantation house, he jokingly baits Arrabella Smalls, their black maid, with accusations that she’s a potential thief. Meechum is no racist, and Lilian treats Arrabella Smalls no differently than she would if she were white. But Arabella’s son Toomer, a fisherman and beekeeper, who we earlier saw driving his cart full of honey jars into town, will soon get into a fatal conflict with a local gang of racists.

The Great Santini is an old school 1970s liberal movie. While there is a nod to Meechum’s older daughter Mary Anne, Sarah Jane Persky, who codes “Jewish, smart, plain, feminist,” his son Ben is squarely at the center of the narrative. If Robert Redford, in Ordinary People, went right for the jugular, gutting his Chicago WASP family, and exposing it as a complete fraud, then Lewis John Carlino seems a bit confused about whether he wants to make a movie that’s genuinely feminist and anti-militarist, or if simply wants to tell a story about a father and son. I haven’t read the Pat Conroy novel the Great Santini is based on but here, in the film, Mary Anne Meechum seems as needy for her father’s attention as she does critical of his patriarchal authority. She mocks her father’s authoritarian personality, but always seems like her brother’s sidekick. She makes up stories about sleeping with black dwarfs to get his attention, which become more and more outlandish as he simply pretends she doesn’t exist. For Bull Meechum, his two daughters really don’t exist. There’s a darker side to his oddly likeable frat jock, but Carlino never quite exploits it as well as he should.

Ben’s feminine role model, his path out his father’s twisted, macho world view, is not a woman at all, but Toomer, the maid’s son. That a black man is used to symbolize feminized masculinity and a white man patriarchy is politically problematic to say the least, but at the very least it does put race and class at the center of the story. Even as Bull Meechum becomes more and more of a caricature of boy man, as he drinks, bullies his kids, and bullies his wife, his wife still defends him. “I want to give my son the gift of fury,” Meechum says to Lillian, “or else the world will tear them apart.” Lillian, the bourgeois southern lady, seems to agree. She plays both sides. She defends her son against his father, as soon as her son rebels, she defends her husband. Lillian doesn’t reject patriarchy at all. On the contrary, after Meechum viciously bullies Ben, who had the temerity to beat him as basketball, Lillian defends him. “Your father loves you,” she said. “He just wants you to be the best.”

And why shouldn’t she? Lillian Meechum isn’t stupid. She knows, along with her husband, that she lives in the United States, a capitalist country that values male aggression. To raise her son to be a feminist would, indeed, be a form of child abuse. It would take from him his ability to succeed, to make money, to attract women, to start a family of his own. Lilian is no Beth Jarrett. She loves her son deeply and has no trouble standing up to her husband when she knows he’s wrong. But she’s no radical either. How could she possibly know that in 1962 helping to impose a traditional masculine identity on her son might mean he’ll die, or, even worse, commit war crimes in Vietnam?

Toomer, on the other hand, is something of a revolutionary. These days, it might be possible to see Stan Shaw’s stuttering, folksy black bee keeper as racist, as a “magical negro,” but, if you look more closely, you can see that Toomer is the black, working class equivalent of Judd Hirsh’s psychiatrist, the benevolent father figure who helps the hero break out of his tyrannical WASP family. Toomer has no trouble standing up to racists, and not only verbally. When a group of “shrimp folk” break his honey jars and try to get in the way of his livelihood, he wrenches the leader into a headlock, and threatens to crush his skull under the wheels of his cart. When the gang comes out to home, he sets up a trap to overturn two cages full of bees. The racists scatter,  howling in pain. When the leader of the racist gang starts shooting his dogs — Toomer keeps about 20 — and accidentally shoots Toomer, Toomer, with his last bit of strength, opens the kennel door. His pack of hounds chase down the racist and kill him.

Indeed, Toomer’s willingness to use violence to defend himself puts him a lot closer to Malcolm X than it does to the Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman of Mississippi Burning.

But it’s still Ben’s story. While Ben never challenges Meechum over the neglect of his two sisters, he does stand up to him over Toomer. After the father orders the son not to interfere — “when the crackers and blacks go at it we don’t stand in the middle” — Ben defies his command and goes out to the bus. It’s too late to save Toomer, but, by at least trying, Ben saves himself. The tables are turned. Ben is no longer the bullied son. Indeed, as Bull Meechum continues to degenerate into the alcoholism that symbolizes his toxic, vicious patriarchal authority, his son becomes the parent, he the child. When Ben hunts down his father, who’s wandered off after a drunken binge, he not only saves him from public humiliation, he yells in his face “I love you dad. I love you dad.”

If Ordinary People’s toxic mother in 1980 meant Reaganite neoliberalism, The Great Santini’s toxic father would very soon, in the 1960s, mean Vietnam.

Meechum is killed after the fuel gage in his fighter jet malfunctions, and he crashes it into the ocean rather then kill civilians.  Ben and Lillian take command of the family, and try to maintain things as they’ve always been. Lillian orders Mary Anne not to cry at the funeral. Ben drives the family out of town, leading them as they sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, his father’s old song. Ben’s Oedipal fantasy has come true. He has Lillian and the kids all to himself. He’s the man now. But Vietnam is only a few years away. Ben, 18 in 1962, is soon going to face a choice. Will he go to Vietnam, napalm civilians, become an agent of the imperial state as his father surely would have done, or will he rebel? Will he resist the draft? Will he go to Canada or jail rather than participate in genocide and war crimes? Will Lillian help him? We have no way of knowing, but, like Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People, he does at least have a fighting chance.

2 thoughts on “The Great Santini (1979)”

  1. The character Lieutenant Colonel Wilbur ” Bull” Meecham was a strict disciplinarian at home, but his lack of self discipline was quite obvious. The man was a boozer and a hell raiser, who demonstrated his lack of self discipline at the farewell party his men honored him with in Spain. The senior officer at his new duty station in the states saw right through Meecham, whose career appeared to be in jeopardy unless he instilled in himself the same iron discipline he instilled in his own kids. Had Meecham not perished in that crash, he might have been court martialed, and his treatment of that young Corporal was outrageous. For that reason alone, “The Great SantinI” deserved to be busted out of the Corps. I am surprised his eldest Son didn’t slug the feckless old man the night he went on a bender and began abusing his wife, who should have been much stronger instead of caving into Bull. Frankly, I am surprised she went along with his crap. His war record aside, Meecham deserved to be busted out of the Corps and he deserved to lose his family. Who knows? It might have happened if Meecham hadn’t changed his feckless ways. Hopefully, Ben pursued his own path in life following the old man’s death. Did the so-called Great Santini really love his kids? If so, he had a strange way of showing it. Calling them hogs was insulting.

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