by 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. • (1999 views)