“The Great Santini,” a best-selling 1976 novel by American author Pat Conroy, tells the story of a tough Marine fighter pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Wilber “Bull” Meecham, and his love-hate relationship with his son, Ben. The novel was made into the 1979 movie, “The Great Santini,” starring Robert Duvall and Blythe Danner.
“The Great Santini” explores the growth of the main character, Ben Meecham, and his efforts to win the love and acceptance of his strict father, who runs his family like a military unit, beats his wife and four children, and is impossible to please. The novel, which is set in South Carolina in 1962, also explores Ben Meecham’s friendships with an African-American farmer and a Jewish classmate.
The novel contrasts the title character’s success as a military pilot with his shortcomings as a father and husband, and explores the high price of heroism and self-sacrifice. In the book, Meecham commands a squadron of F-8 Crusaders while in the film the jets are F-4 Phantom IIs.
Conroy grew up in a military family and based the character “Bull” Meecham on his father, Donald Conroy. Donald Conroy nicknamed himself “The Great Santini” after bragging to his squadron that his aerial acrobatics were better than the famous trapeze artist he had seen as a child. In 2013, Pat Conroy wrote a memoir about his father, titled “The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son.”