|Great Santini, The|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 23 November 1999|
‘The Great Santini’ has been justly praised for its powerful performances - Robert Duvall and Michael O’Keefe both got Oscar nominations for their work here. It’s strong dramatically as well, beginning immediately in Chapter 1 with a spectacular albeit non-lethal aerial dogfight between U.S. Marine and Navy pilots over Spain. As a DVD, however, it leaves much to be desired. Not only does it lack any supplemental material and come only in the pan-and-scan full-screen aspect ratio, the ‘Santini’ DVD adds insult to injury by using a print with color quality that makes it look as though the film was made in 1959 instead of 1979. Worse still, the mono audio track has a variety of noticeable defects.
It’s 1962, and Marine fighter pilot Col. Wilbur "Bull" Meechum (Duvall) returns Stateside to a new posting in the Deep South, where he reunites with his loyal wife Lili (Blythe Danner) and their four children. Bull runs his family much the way he runs his troops. He’s determined that eldest son Ben (O’Keefe) will serve four years in the Marines, even though Ben isn’t so sure this is what he wants to do. Bull’s competitive, alpha male nature forces him to challenge Ben at every turn, leading to borderline physical violence; he almost ignores the younger children altogether. Ben befriends a black youth (Stan Shaw), who is the target of town racists. Bull doesn’t want his son caught up in a situation that could get ugly; Ben feels obliged to take a stand. Meanwhile, the strain of being a warrior without a war is causing Bull to act more and more aggressively.
While the dynamics depicted in ‘The Great Santini’ are not true of all (or even most) American families, everyone of a certain age knows people like the Meechums. Director/screenwriter Lewis John Carlino has adapted Pat Conroy’s novel with becoming insight and subtlety into the primal struggles that can erupt between fathers and sons. Bull is a man is torn between wanting to mold his firstborn in his own image and fear that he may be outmatched under his own roof. The situations and dialogue are entirely credible and the cast is outstanding. Special note should be made of Lisa Jane Persky, who as eldest Meechum daughter Mary Ann does a killer job of delivering an outrageous speech in Chapter 24, designed to get Dad’s attention in any way possible.
It’s a shame the DVD doesn’t do the film justice. The dogfight in Chapter 1 has great flying stunts, but the music drowns out the sound effects. Chapter 2 has lovely flamenco guitar music. In Chapter 3, the dialogue track seems to be at odds with the ambient sound, resulting in small sonic dropouts between speeches. In Chapter 12, a cheering crowd actually screeches, roughing up the soundtrack in the treble registers. Chapter 32 provides a nice ambient sound mix, but Chapter 16 and Chapter 39 have spoken words that become electronically fuzzy.
As a movie, ‘The Great Santini’ is a solid drama. However, the old-looking color and dodgy sound on the DVD release are downright distracting in places.