The Marines are looking for a few good movies
Washington — When you're fighting back tears at the end of a war movie and trying to pry the popcorn off the soles of your shoes, you've perhaps wondered vaguely where they got all those planes and tanks and guns and things.
In this country, the armed forces are happy to lend out hardware and even men for movies, but they take an uncommon, and understandable, interest in the scripts.
That the United States Marine Corps (USMC) had a lot to do with "The Great Santini" is quite apparent, for instance.
But the leathernecks did not initially charge up the beaches to support the film, in which Robert Duvall plays Lt. Col. W. P. (Bull) Meechum, a fiercly dedicated martinet of a Marine aviator.
After reading the novel of the same name by Pat Conroy (on which the film is based), the director of information at Marine Corps headquarters pronounced it "highly authentic" and "very upbeat towards the USMC."
But he noted that, among other things, it contained racist incidents and derogatory statements about the Navy. His verdict: "entertaining and scandalous." It was thumbs down for "The Great Santini."
Alarmed by this apparent rejection of its request for assistance, Bing Crosby Productions, which made the now widely acclaimed film, countered with a letter from Pat Conroy, whose book is reputedly modeled on the exploits of his father, a retired Marine colonel and fighter pilot.
"I wrote 'The Great Santini,'" the novelist declares, "as a celebration of military life in America, a celebration of the military family, a celebration of one single military family -- my own. But I meant the Meechum family to be a microcosm for all American military families. I wanted to tell a story that has not been told before. The military family is an unknown factor in American literature or film. It is an unknown, unpraised, undefined subculture. . . . I tried to show that the life of Bull Meechum is filled with extraordinary pressures and that this pressure affects each member of his family. But the family also has uncommon experience which directly affects the pilot."
The leatherneck aviator, Conroy continues, lives life "at high acceleration . . . on the cutting edge. He is a man of action, not of introspection. He is a warrior never quite comfortable in the milieu of his own home. He is motivated by the powerful mythology of the Marine aviator."
And Conroy adds that the excellence Meechum requires of his squadron "is the same excellence he requires of his . . . family. To be good is not good enough. To be the best is almost good enough . . . . The children are as a stubborn as the fighter pilot. They have too much of their father in them to be cowed by his consuming presence."
Conroy's moving letter did the trick. Negotiations opened, and much that the Marine Corps objected to in the film was eliminated, including a recruit abuse scene, two scenes that contained disparaging remarks about the Navy, and a scene in which Meechum's daughter tells her brother that when he joins the corps, "Slowly, all that's good in you will begin to dissolve. . . ." In addition, several wife-beating and child-abuse scenes were either cut out or toned down.
"I don't feel anything was lost," the film's director, Lew Carlino, says. The Marines, he says, were "enormously helpful. We couldn't have done the aerial sequences without them."
Convinced that the movie as revised would reflect favorably on the 182 -year-old corps, and particularly on its air arm, Marine corps headquarters here threw its support behind the project. Designated technical adviser to the film was Maj. Pat Coulter, of the corps's public affairs office in Los Angeles. His functions were manifold.
"Mostly, it was a matter of making sure that the story was as authentic and accurate as possible and seeing that the people who play the part of marines act like marines," he explains.
Lew Carlino praises: "He was a Trojan. He made everything really happen. He's a brilliant organizer."
Though he did his share of straightening ties and checking ribbons, there was considerable coaching to be done, the major, a Vietnam veteran who is working for his master's degree in public affairs at the University of Southern California, explains.
He spent a lot of time, he says, just sitting down with the actors and talking about their roles, because most "have really no background in the military." And his approach to Robert Duvall -- who last year appeared as Gen. Dwight Eisenhower on television and an air cavalry colonel in "Apocalypse Now" -- was no different.
Duvall, who is an admiral's son, threw himself into the movie, Major Coulter says, noting that his metamorphosis from the five-star Ike to Marine lieutenant colonel began the day he arrived at the Marine Corps air station in Beaufort, S.C., where most of the film was shot.
"He met with commanders at the air station and at Parris Island. He sat in on briefings and debriefings, attended social functions, and got [playfully] hosed down with a fire extinguisher," Major Coulter recalls.
As Duvall was required to play the part of a pilot, he was taught how to talk with his hands by Lt. Col. "Deejay" Kiely, whose Beaufort-based F-4 Phantoms (making up Marine Fighter-Attack Squadron 312) play Meechum's "Werewolf" squadron in the movie.
"Pilots do that," notes Major Coulter. "They've got one hand chasing the other as if they were dogfighting."
In addition, the star spent a day with recruits, drill instructors, and officers, and later told Major Coulter: "I learned more in that day than I ever could have from any book of film about the Marines."
The Marine Corps is clearly much happier with "The Great Santini" than it was with "Coming Home" and "The Boys of Company C," neither of whose directors requested assistance from the corps. Major Coulter is hugely enthusiastic about "Santini."
"The scenes that are in there, we feel, show off Marine aviation better than has ever been done before -- [at least] since 'Flying Leathernecks' back in 1951 . Even though we don't stand up and say it's a Marine recruiting film, subliminally it becomes one. Marines life style only appeals to 7 percent of America. But I think you'll agree with me and also a number of officers who are in the recruiting business who have said that this will have these young college aviator potentials beating down the door to become Marine fighter pilots."
The film is having a different effect on some Marine pilots. "The Great Santini" is moving the most hardened marines to tears, says Major Coulter, adding that it has also "brought an awful lot of people to do some serious thinking about themselves."
After one preview screening, Major Coulter received a telephone call from a Marine aviation colonel who told him he had not slept much that night.
"He said the movie made him take a hard look at himself. . . . He wasn't sure he liked what he saw. His point was that he saw a lot of similarities between himself and Santini. This guy had kids, and he really felt that that's the way his children perceived him, and it really bothered him."
Robert Duvall, somewhere in Quebec producing and dircting a movie about Gypsies entitled "Angelo My Love," was unavailable for comment. But his agent, attorney, and brother, John Duvall, declares that the Marine Corps was "very cooperative and very enthusiastic" about the movie.
When Bull Meechum toasts "that special breed of sky devil . . . the Marine dogfighter" and bellows, "There is not a force that can defeat us in battle, deny us victory, or interrupt our destiny -- Marines!," it is not hard to see why. Indeed, the corps may not have to appeal for a few good men for some time.