Review: The Great Santini

GreatSantiniby Steve Lancaster    5/12/14
Pat Conroy is Georgia born and son of a marine fighter pilot. In 1963 he joined Citadel, Military College of South Carolina and that experience resulted in his books Boo (1970) and the Lords of Discipline (1980) and a long term rift between Citadel administration and Conway which did not heal until 2001 with the awarding of an honorary degree. Sometimes fame and fortune can move the most reluctant organizations.

If you are the son or daughter of any service member you have probably met Lieutenant Colonel Bull Meechem. The navy, army and air force each have their own Bull Meechem’s but only the marines could have the original, the Great Santini. The Great Santini is on one level about marines and their families, on another level about fathers and sons and lastly about the South and the relationships that form our common heritage the good and the bad.

Most reviews of the movie and the book are, regrettably, written by men and women who have not met nor really understand the military and could never understand the marines. They stress that Bull Meechem is a hero of the service but a failure as a husband and father. For all the children who have grown up in families of violent and sometimes abusive fathers, Great Santini, book or movie, is a form of catharsis for those fears.

I did not understand my father until years after his death and my own service years in the Corps. I still joke that I spent 18 years in basic before I enlisted. I knew when I first read the following passage that Conroy and I had spent time in the same house.

The Marine Corps is a stronger force than you know. It can take a stupid, spineless man and make him feel like he could face the armies of God and stand a fifty-fifty chance of winning. If the Corps gets a strong man in the beginning, then it can make him feel that the armies of God are kamikazes for having the nerve to challenge him in the first place. The Marine Corps takes a small ego and makes it gigantic; it takes a large ego and then steps back to see how large it can grow. Your father’s is still growing even though I feel it now dwarfs a few small Alps.

He makes bad mistakes, but he makes them because he is part of an organization that does not tolerate substandard performance. He just sometimes forgets there’s a difference between a Marine and a son.

Bull Meechem even by marine standards is “old corps” by that I mean that he is unashamed of his pride in the corps, his country, his family and his God. He is by some standards a drunk, unrestrained killer, abusive husband and father. He is also a superb leader, fighter pilot and fearful enemy.

There are a lot of books and movies made about marines, Sands of Iwo Jima, Gung Ho, Full Metal Jacket, and A Few Good Men. Each in its way captures a moment in time, of struggle, war and death. Every marine instinctively understands Sgt. John Stryker, Col. Thorwald, Pvt. J.T. ‘Joker’ Davis and Col. Nathan R. Jessup but they are only parts of a whole that is Santini. We have created and even maintain an image of knuckle dragging Neanderthal not to enhance our own image, but to keep civilians away and innocent of the realities of standing on the wall.

I find that images form the movie, filter through my mind when I read the book and parts of the book not done in the movie fill in the gaps time would not allow. In my mind Lillian Meechem will always be Blyth Danner and Bull Meechem, The Great Santini, will always be Robert Duvall. Yet, Bull Meechem lives on in the lives and loves of thousands of men and women on bases all over the world where our men and women are defending our country. We may not be able to live with them, but there is no way we can survive without them. • (2349 views)

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11 Responses to Review: The Great Santini

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I do believe this is a Robert Duvall movie that I haven’t yet seen. I’m going to have to rectify that shortcoming.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    I’m an Army brat myself, my father having graduated from the Point in 1945 (and ranked high enough in his class to go into the Engineers). He could be a strict disciplinarian at times, and I certainly have plenty of negative memories about that, but I don’t know if that came from the Army. (I remember tales of what his father did with a razor strap, though I was lucky enough never to have personal experience of it.) I even recall that a few years after he was killed in Vietnam, I thought this may have been better for me. (This is related to my comments in the blog about the Slobocracy.)

    But I also always had plenty of good memories as well, and I still remember my high-school principal informing me of his death (though not the first sentence or so, an odd problem that remains): “He lost a lot of blood, and early this morning he died.” And I definitely cried at his funeral, and honor his memory. (A few years ago, one of my cousins offered me a couple of his books from West Point, which I accepted.) On the other hand, when the President met the family to honor him in some way, I didn’t go — but that wasn’t about my father; I had recently read Haley’s A Texan Looks at Lyndon and had no interest in meeting the book’s subject.

    It was my father who provided a very perspicacious comment about the basic flaw of communism: that communists treat their people as human fertilizer, to be expended to build their supposedly better society.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I watched the first 55 minutes or so of this last night. Right up to the point of Danny Noonan’s 18th birthday where he gets his dad’s old jacket as a present.

    Bull Meechem is indeed a bull. He’s part of a diminishing warrior class in the West (in contrast to a burgeoning wuss class). We can indeed not survive without these kind of men standing at the wall. And you’ll probably understand why I see Tom Cruise, not Jack Nicholson, as the villain in “A Few Good Men.”

    Meechem reminds me a little of my ex brother-in-law, who was a Marine. He is bold, a bit arrogant, self-confident, and probably sometimes a bit crude as well. Perhaps “The Great Santini” (haven’t watched it all yet) plays on that stereotype of the gung-ho set. But maybe that stereotype is somewhat well deserved.

    There is no place anymore for stand-up guys like Meecham in “Progressive” culture. Oh, there’s still a Marine Corp. And I’m sure they’re nearly as dependable as ever. But political correctness is infecting all branches of the forces. Could a Great Santini survive today’s girly-man military bureaucracy if he dunked a subordinate’s head in the toilet?

    To be a warrior means unleashing the animal to some extent. And I wonder sometimes how easy it is to go from the military to civilian life. And I don’t just mean that some will have crude and violent instincts that may be difficult to control. I mean that the new “normal” is so sissified that I wonder if some of these guys can even get a date anymore. Do women even understand that there is more to the role of being a man than marching in some victim-of-the-week parade while wearing the right color of ribbon and sipping a latte?

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I finished watching “The Great Santini” at lunch. I like Robert Duvall and I’m glad I took time to watch him in this one.

    Most of the movie resembled a 70’s made-for-TV movie. But it was an effective story for the most part. Unfortunately, it left out what should have been a more (or equally) emphasized part. It was when Meechum was hand-picked to rehabilitate a floundering Marine squadron.

    I give the movie credit for not delving into simple stereotypes. Despite the made-for-TV production values, this movie is fairly smart. You see the good and the bad sides of Meechum’s character and no easy (or cliched) answers are presented. You have a complex relationship between Meechum and his wife and children.

    And that’s why we needed to see more of Meechum interacting with his men as a leader. We get, in my opinion, far too much of his family life. This would have aided in a fuller, less black-and-white, view of the man.

    As much as I liked the character, I would have cut the entire storyline of Toomer Smalls. This movie should have gone with the dichotomy of family/home or the dichotomy of family/Toomer Smalls (as a stand-in for Danny Noonan growing his own life apart from his manipulative and harsh father). But it tried to bite off a little more than it could chew by going for all three.

    And — Jesus — maybe Danny Noonan needs to man up a little. He’s sitting in the locker room crying after he retaliated against the thug who was his opponent on the basketball court. In my view, that jerk got everything he deserved (a broken arm). But, good god, it was a riot seeing Meechum come unglued on the sidelines and telling his son “Retaliate or don’t bother coming home.” And, yes, there really are parents like that (or near like that) on the sidelines during kids’ athletic events.

    Duvall was good. His wife, played by Blythe Danner, was certainly more than adequate. But the one daughter who had all the caustic (and good) lines that she threw at her father was not much of an actress.

    But when all is said and done, this is a movie that I think deserves to be seen at least once. And any Duvall fan should not miss it, for sure.

  5. steve lancaster says:

    When you wonder about the men and women in the military Kipling always has an answer.

    Rudyard Kipling
    I went into a public-‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
    The publican ‘e up an’ sez, “We serve no red-coats here.”
    The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
    I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
    O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
    But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,
    The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
    O it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play.

    I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
    They gave a drunk civilian room, but ‘adn’t none for me;
    They sent me to the gallery or round the music-‘alls,
    But when it comes to fightin’, Lord! they’ll shove me in the stalls!
    For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, wait outside”;
    But it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide,
    The troopship’s on the tide, my boys, the troopship’s on the tide,
    O it’s “Special train for Atkins” when the trooper’s on the tide.

    Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
    Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap;
    An’ hustlin’ drunken soldiers when they’re goin’ large a bit
    Is five times better business than paradin’ in full kit.
    Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?”
    But it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll,
    The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
    O it’s “Thin red line of ‘eroes” when the drums begin to roll.

    We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
    But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
    An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints,
    Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints;
    While it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, fall be’ind”,
    But it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”, when there’s trouble in the wind,
    There’s trouble in the wind, my boys, there’s trouble in the wind,
    O it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”, when there’s trouble in the wind.

    You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:
    We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
    Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
    The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.
    For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
    But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;
    An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
    An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool — you bet that Tommy sees!

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Another interesting Kipling poem about the poor treatment of veterans can be found in Terry Brighton’s Hell Riders, an excellent account of the Charge of the Light Brigade. The survivors (most of the brigade) faced the usual poor treatment of elderly veterans, and Kipling wrote a poem about it which is included (in full) in the book. It complains about leaving to the Victorian charitable institutions (such as the notorious workhouses) “the charge of the Light Brigade”.

      • steve lancaster says:

        I had forgotten about that, thanks for the reminder. Its in my stack of stuff for reading since Christmas.

        A real historical view would most likely come to the conclusion that warriors are never treated well by the cultures we defend. I do not ask for special considerations. I came back from war, hot and cold, relativity unharmed physically.

        I don’t want a pension, special points for employment, hospitals, loans and all the other crap that ties you to the government tit. Let those wounded and the families of those killed receive the maximum we can do,

        for myself a simple thank you is enough.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          A real historical view would most likely come to the conclusion that warriors are never treated well by the cultures we defend.

          Do you think that has always been the case? Or is it (as I suspect) more of a case of the effect of the anti-war (that is to say, anti-anti-communist) Left?

          It’s one thing to not be a warrior (as I admit I am not). It’s another to denigrate them based on propaganda that one has inhaled (or been force-fed) by the Left. Many of these imbeciles really do believe that wars are the result of “intolerant” people who are unwilling to escape their own prejudices in order to kumbaya their way to peace with other peoples.

          This attitude has left us often unable and unwilling to defend ourselves as the rot of multiculturalism and relativism take over. This even extends to non-shooting war where some (and that sadly includes many of your libertarian buds) think it is some kind of repression to not allow illegal aliens to flood across the border.

          A Facebook friend of mine (and ex chairman of the Washington State Republican Party) posted an article a while back (perhaps it will stir Timothy’s recollection) about how people can be divided into three classes: the wolves, the sheep, and the sheep dogs.

          There will always be a need to protect ourselves from the wolves. And the sheep just won’t do it. It is therefore necessary for the sheep dogs to do this duty. And I suspect in many cultures that the sheep dog was an honored profession. But in our girlified culture, corrupted by the Left (especially regarding utopian and anti-Western notions), the warriors are now dismissed as “baby killers.”

          Pansies, such as Obama, run our nation now, not the kind of smart, noble, wise, and brave American warriors such as Eisenhower or Grant…or even Lincoln, for that matter…although he wasn’t a soldier, he surely learned to think like one.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Judging from Kipling, I’d say that the poor treatment of veterans goes back a long way, though it may well be worse now. Perhaps it’s an Anglo-Saxon thing, a reflection of a dislike of standing armies (and thus of long-service veterans). Class also undoubtedly played a role in Victorian England.

            In reviewing one of Michael Z. Williamson’s books about a sniper team, I noted that there are tigers out there, and we need tiger-hunters to deal with them. Sometimes these tiger-hunters go rogue and have to be dealt with, but we must still remember that we need those tiger-hunters.

            My use of “tigers” came no doubt from the proverb that L. Sprague de Camp quoted in The Great Monkey Trial in discussing Clarence Darrow: “To be kind to the tiger is to be cruel to the lamb.” He noted that Darrow never seemed to feel any concern for the victims of crime: “Their plight concerned him not,” if I recall correctly. Modern liberals feel the same way that Darrow did.

          • steve lancaster says:

            I do not believe it is anything new. I think every thinking culture wants in their heart to believe this was the last war and there will be no more.

            I wish that were true but I believe with Heraclitus that war is the father of us all. Perhaps that is depressing, yet I find hope that every generation of Americans finds the men and women willing to stand guard. I am proud of them and their sacrifice and if I have to tolerate the slings and barbs of the progressive types sipping $10.00 lattes at Starbucks so be it. I know what I have fought for, and what my children and grandchildren are fighting for.
            Semper Fi

        • Timothy Lane says:

          As an Army brat whose father, brother, uncle, great-uncle, and great-aunt all were career veterans (a second-cousin did the same thing in the Navy), I’m quite willing to say, “Thank you for your service.” Many of us do know that, as George Orwell pointed out, we who are not rough men (or women) are free because other rough men protect us from enemies.

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