The time is the early 1960s. Bull Meechum is a daredevil Marine fighter pilot who is very skilled in the air and a practical joker on the ground. He returns home from Spain to take over a squadron command. His wife (Blythe Danner) and four children prepare to move on to Beauford, South Carolina.

The Great Santini is adapted from a book by Pat Conroy, who said the Bull Meechum character represents his own father. This is a vivid and highly affecting study of a "between wars" military man and the coming-of-age of his oldest son (Michael O'Keefe).

At first, Meechum is outrageous — strident, hard drinking, and domineering. He treats all those around him like new recruits. Ben, the oldest child, has been tutored by his mother in gentleness and his father is determined to pound all those traces out of him. It's "fury" Bull wants to give his son and nothing else will do. One of the film's most impressive scenes pits father against son in a basketball game as the rest of the family watches. When, despite his brawling tactics, Bull loses, he refuses to accept defeat.

Robert Duvall gives one of the most intense and fully realized performances of his career as Meechum, a.k.a. "The Great Santini." He manages to touch the emotional bases, of anger, love, pride, hate, and regret. Michael O'Keefe turns in a sterling performance as his son, a boy trying desperately to resolve the masculine and feminine sides of his personality. In an act of defiance against his father's authoritarianism, he endangers his own life to try and save a black friend (Stan Shaw). Also impressive is Blythe Danner's delineation of Mrs. Meechum, a religious woman who understands her moody husband and cherishes her sons' reciprocal love.

The Great Santini is occasionally marred by some unnecessary melodrama but, on the whole, this is a wealthy movie shining with rich character portraits.