On Location: Tidalholm
A look at the Lowcountry’s starring role in the movies
The Great Santini (1979)
Robert Duvall as Lt. Col. Wilbur “Bull” P. Meechum, Blythe Danner as Lillian “Lil” Meechum, Michael O’Keefe as Ben Meechum, Brian Andrews as Matthew Meechum and Julie Anne Haddock as Karen Meechum.
Beaufort is home to many beautiful antebellum homes. The most famous is Tidalholm, located at 1 Laurens Street. Many locals know it as “The Big Chill House,” where the popular 1983 movie was filmed. But before Tom Berenger, Glenn Close and Jeff Goldblum showed up, the historical landmark was featured in the 1979 family drama “The Great Santini,” starring Robert Duvall.
The Academy Award-nominated drama, based on Beaufort native Pat Conroy’s book, follows the life of Lt. Col. Wilbur “Bull” Meechum, a pilot also known as “The Great Santini.” The Meechum family home scenes were shot at Tidalholm and portrayed a peaceful time in 1962 before America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The military scenes in the movie were shot at Merritt Field at the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort. The scene where Ben finds his father drunk under a tree was shot at the open square that locals call “The Green.”
During production, Duvall was spotted all over town driving a beautiful, dark blue with gold pin-stripe Mercedes 450 SLC with the top down.
Bull Meechum (Robert Duvall) is a great fighter pilot — so great that he dubs himself “The Great Santini.” While his take-no-prisoners attitude and willingness to fight have served him well in the military, he’s unable to turn it off at home. Eventually his competitive nature and abusive behavior take their toll on his relationships with his wife (Blythe Danner) and his rebellious 18-year-old son (Michael O’Keefe) after a friendly father-and-son basketball game turns ugly.
Director Lewis John Carlino adapted the script from Pat Conroy’s novel of the same name. The title character, Lt. Col. Wilbur “Bull” Meechum, aka “The Great Santini,” was based on Conroy’s father, Donald. Before he died in 1998, Donald told a nurse, “I will be the only person ever buried in the Beaufort National Cemetery twice; once in the movie ‘The Great Santini’ and then in real life.”
The film made its world premiere in Beaufort in August 1979 and was soon released in North Carolina and South Carolina to empty cinemas. Believing the film’s title, which implied it was about circus stunts, was the problem, new titles (Sons and Heroes, Reaching Out and The Ace) were tested in other markets. Alternative movie posters were also used.
Parodies of the “You gonna cry?” basketball scene were in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and in episodes of The Simpsons and Roseanne. The film was also referenced in King of the Hill, when Hank mentions he has rented and returned the movie 23 times.
“Like almost all my favorite films, The Great Santini is about people more than it is about a story. It’s a study of several characters, most unforgettably the Great Santini himself, played by Robert Duvall … There are moments so unpredictable and yet so natural they feel just like the spontaneity of life itself.” —Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times
“An uneven achievement that nevertheless contains enough of value to justify catching it.” —John Simon, National Review
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