What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is not on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called the The Atticus and Boo Blog-A-Thon being hosted by – Hosted by Taking Up Room. This is an event celebrating the iconic film “To Kill A Mockingbird” and it’s legendary stars, Gregory Peck and the film debut of Robert Duvall. The host of this event never fails to attract top-quality contributions, and despite that…she still lets me participate.
You can see all the contributors to this blog-a-thon here:
Trained rage without a target; a warrior without a war. There’s no better description of Lt. Col. Wilbur “Bull” Meechum (played by Robert Duvall). “Bull” is a U.S. Marine aviator who is known as “The Great Santini.” The story centers on “Bull” and his family as they move to a Marine Corps base in South Carolina in 1962.
In many ways, “Bull” Meechum is the stereotypical Marine; he’s brash, uncouth, and runs his family just like a military commander. Contrasting him is his wife Lillian (played by Blythe Danner). Lillian is loyal, docile, and yet has a hidden steely resolve capable of both tolerating and somewhat shielding her children from Bull’s temper…which is often fueled by his drinking.
As such, the teen-aged Meechum children Ben (played by Michael O’Keefe) and Mary Anne (played by Mary Jane Persky), have grown accustomed their father’s disciplinarian nature and developed their own mechanism for adapting to and coping with it. There are another daughter and son, but they are rarely seen or mentioned as the movie’s main thrust is the rapidly-changing relationship between Bull and Ben.
On top of that, being a military family, they are once again faced with being the “new kids in school.” This is easier for Ben because he is a dominant high-school basketball star. Ben rules the roost on the court, which becomes a problem when he beats his hyper-competitive father in a one-on-one game in the driveway at home.
While Ben is coming into his own as a man, Bull can’t separate the role of father from that of hard-assed Marine aviator. Whether it’s the Marines under his command or his family, Bull issues “direct orders,” calls everyone “sports fan,” and expects to be called “Sir.” In other words, in his mind “The Great Santini” is a hot-shot pilot, a duty and honor bound Marine, an excellent husband and father, and a prince among men…all of which means he does not lose to a kid, even if that kid is his own son.
The tension builds all during the game with Bull and going at each other hard. Bull becomes increasingly abusive the more he’s realizing he’s going to get beat. Bull’s tactics get more and more physical, but Ben doesn’t relent. When Ben finally wins, Bull humiliates him by berating and insulting him, bouncing the ball off his head, and yelling at his other kids and wife for interfering. Later that night, Ben awakes to the sound of his father practicing basketball alone in the driveway.
When Lillian tells Ben not to be angry with his father, it becomes clear the driveway basketball game is a metaphor for Bull’s losing his absolute control over his children as they grow up and he has no idea how to deal with that.
This becomes even more evident when Ben disobeys a “direct order” from Bull about coming to the aid of a young black man named Toomer (played by Stan Shaw). Bull is initially furious, but shows a change of heart when his fellow Marines defend Ben’s actions saying he showed courage and loyalty…two qualities which have the utmost reverence amongst Marines.
One of my favorite examples the Meechum children are understanding the questioning Bull’s totalitarian autocracy when Mary Anne wonders aloud if females are allowed “full” Meechum family status, or if they are relegated to an amoeba-like status as one-celled Meechums.
As I am prone to do, I’m going out of my way not to spoil the end of this film so as those who have not yet seen it may still enjoy to it’s utmost. Personally this is my favorite Robert Duvall performance; he makes Bull Meechum simultaneously lovable and hateable in a film which is far more about people than a story. As a character study, this film is full of quirky yet genuine moments, such as the out-of-nowhere shoulder-punching contest between Bull and their maid (played by Theresa Merritt).
By the end of the film, you can see the faintest glimpses for the waning of Bull’s unwillingness and/or inability to appreciate his son’s sensitive nature and his burgeoning independence. Their relationship remains tenuous to the very end…one in which Bull truly selfless nature is revealed and the Meechum family is forced to come together.
In the end “The Great Santini” is comedic without sacrificing gravitas, sentimental without being corny, and a bona fide tear-jerker that still offers plenty of “feel-good” moments.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
Today’s analogy is less about a sports analogy and more about a sports blogger analogy. There’s a reason why both Robert Duvall and Michael O’Keefe were nominated for Academy Awards for this film; they nail their respective roles as “Lt. Col. ‘Bull’ Meechum” and his son “Ben.” I am a well-spring of first-hand knowledge on the subject as I have been both.
Like “Ben” I was the son of a career military officer. “Bull” was a Marine; my dad was a Major in the U.S. Air Force. Despite that, they shared the “strict disciplinarian” angle; not exactly a surprising characteristic from a man in uniform. While “Bull” takes that to another and not-all-great level with his overbearing competitive nature, he’s still instilling qualities in his son which will help “Ben” succeed in life. My dad was nowhere near the borderline abusive nature of “Bull,” but they both believed in the order of things, lived by what they believed, and passed those values on the best way they knew how.
In the movie, you never get to see what happens to “Ben” later in life when he has a family of his own. In the sports blogger analogy, nobody will ever know that either since I never had children. But it’s a safe assumption “Ben” becomes a productive member of society; you can see him heading distinctly down that path by the end of the movie; he stands up to “Bull’s” bullying and plays a major role in the welfare and upbringing of his siblings.
This is where the sports blogger analogy comes into play; every time I watch this movie, I can’t help but think I became what “Ben” would have…a guy who can’t help be just like his father, but has enough self-awareness to manage the “not-so-great” parts of his dad’s persona.
First and foremost, I became “Bull” Meechum; there’s a reason why I wrote about being afraid to be “Ted Stryker” from “Airplane!” and why there’s lots of pictures of me around McDonnel-Douglas F-4 Phantoms.
While I never had kids of my own, I’m surrounded by nieces and nephews, none of whom get treated like they are in a Marine Corps Fighter-Attack wing. I’ve never bounced a basketball off anybody’s head.
The key here is rather simple. Again, “Bull” is a warrior without a war, so he stomps through life like a tyrannosaurus rex made of frustrated aggression, and he has no idea how much he comes off as the world’s largest asshole. “Ben” on the other had is blessed with the sight of the darkest parts of his persona on full display right in front of him. You can see in his eyes during the “basketball” scene that he realizes the darkness that resides in the deepest parts of his being and that he is going to do everything in his power to keep them from manifesting themselves.
Like I said, my dad never came close to the pseudo-lunacy of “Bull,” but having seen this movie early in life meant I was fortunate to get the gift of self-awareness at a point when I could understand the importance of people’s perceptions.
And despite all that…I know I’m still an asshole 🙂
The Moral of the Story:
The first person you need to get to know is you.
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