THE GREAT SANTINI – Elmer Bernstein
Original Review by Craig Lysy
The Great Santini was adapted from Pat Conroy’s semi-autographical tribute to his father Bull Meechum, a tough, and hard-edged Marine fighter pilot. The film explores how he struggles in peacetime to adapt to his new life as well as to be a loving father and husband without relinquishing his tough guy warrior image. The film starred Robert Duvall as Col. “Bull” Meechum, Michael O’Keefe as his eldest son, Ben and Blythe Danner as his wife, Lillian. Although the film was a critical success and earned Oscar nominations for both Duvall and O’Keefe, it was a commercial failure, never able to resonate with the viewing public.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Elmer Bernstein seemed trapped as a composer of an endless parade of low budget comedies such as Animal House, Meatballs and Airplane! Securing the assignment for The Great Santini was a Godsend in so much that it allowed him the opportunity to once again display his wondrous gift for poignant and emotional drama which had won him so much fame in his early career. The film clearly centered on Bull Meechum, who was an uncompromising and often brutal force of nature, and his embattled relationship with his son Ben. In developing the film’s soundscape, Bernstein created four primary themes; one for Bull which is expressed initially in militaristic fashion in the Main Title, but also less aggressively and more intimately by saxophone and oboe during moments when he allowed himself to express his feelings, a tender minor modal theme consisting of a repeating triplet line for Ben, a theme for the friendship between Ben and his friend Toomer and lastly, a warm string born theme for the family. In addition, Berstein composed a motif, The Santini Mystique Motif that emoted the mystery of the father with whom Ben sought to relate. It suffices to say that this is a well-conceived and complex score with a multiplicity of themes. Bernstein’s melodic sensibilities are once again placed on full display as he successfully captures the film’s emotional narrative while the complex relationships of the characters unfolded on the screen.
“The Santini Mystique – Original Version” The score opens unexpectedly with the Santini Mystique Motif, a mysterioso bell ostinato playing over a violin sustain. As the Opening Credits begin to roll we bear witness to an aerial competition between Navy and Marine fight pilots. At 0:15 Bernstein introduces Bull’s Theme, which employs a dramatic and powerful repeating seven-note motif. The theme is clearly militaristic, fully embodies his manly and aggressive persona, and will serve to animate crucial scenes throughout the film. The theme opens with a strong bass chord sustain that is joined by militaristic snare drums. At 0:30 an ascending bass line ushers in the horn carried seven-note motif that interplays with the Santini Mystique Motif now enhanced with trilling flute. At 0:57 trumpets take up his theme, which shifts into a march set to snare drums and bearing interludes of ominous bass chord sustains. As the cue progresses, the theme gains potency and greater dichotomy as the juxtaposition of the Santini Mystique Motif widens the rift between the competing lines. The cue ends on a portentous bass chord sustain with fading snare drums. This powerful and supremely complex Main Theme is perfectly conceived and attenuated to Bull. It is without doubt the film’s defining theme and a score highlight.
In “Ben and Bull” Bull is driving his sleeping family to their new home in Beaufort South Carolina when he wakes Ben for a chat. The cue opens with solo flute and harp which introduce Bull’s Theme, now stripped of its militarism and emoted tenderly first on solo oboe and then on solo soprano saxophone. As Ben queries his father as to whether he has ever been afraid, the Santini Mystique Motif reprises. The solo oboe returns anew and Bull’s Theme plays with a steady bass cadence that is joined by woodwinds. At 1:09 the cue finishes as morning dawns with a warm and lyrical string line that sets the ambiance of their new life in the south. This well constructed cue is nicely done and I appreciate the oboe work. “New Home” provides the soundscape for the family’s arrival at their new home, which Lillian just adores. Muted French horns and woodwinds tenderly herald the family’s arrival an usher in the lush and lyrical Family Theme born warmly on strings with stirring counterpoint by French horns. This heartfelt theme is just beautiful.
“Bull in the Rain” is a most complicated cue that serves as the backdrop of Bull losing to Ben for the first time in one-on-one basketball as well as his subsequent verbal and physical abuse of Ben and Lillian. We hear tension as a repeating marimba triplet plays over a stark string chord that as it intensifies grows increasingly dissonant. As the marimba shifts to a repeating percussive cadence the string discord worsens. At 0:39 a sad Bull’s Theme enters on solo saxophone with a piano undercurrent. We then transition to a variant of the Santini Mystique Motif that plays atop discordant trumpets as Ben watching from his bedroom window, sees his father repeatedly shooting hoops in the rain. The cue concludes with a return of Bull’s Theme carried on solo cello, woodwinds and muted trumpets as Lillian comes in to console her son. In “Mother and Son” Lillian assumes the role of apologist for Bull’s behavior as she again tries to console Ben. The cue introduces Ben’s Theme, which features a gentle repeating triplet melody. The theme is expressed as a wondrous duet of solo oboe and celesta that provides a prelude to the Family Theme that is emoted with solo violin. The cue concludes with Bull’s Theme emoted sadly on solo bassoon. This cue just has exquisite beauty and is a rapture moment for me.
“The Boys” deals with the friendship formed between Ben and Toomer, the son of their black housemaid. Bernstein perfectly emotes the carefree rural ambiance of the south with the youthful, syncopated and exuberant Friendship Theme, which is carried with a joie de vivre by woodwinds with orchestral accompaniment. At 1:05 we segue into “Idyll” where a pastoral ambiance is provided as the boys paddle their boat at sunset down the river. Ben’s Theme returns as a duet of oboe and celesta that is then joined in trio by flute – simply gorgeous! At 1:39 as they see a shooting star warm strings take up the melody with twinkling harp accents that create a stirring gentile ambiance. The cue continues with a delicate flute line, which concludes in duet with solo oboe. This cue gives me goose bumps and once again affirms the genius and immeasurable talent of Bernstein. This is why I love film music!
In “Ben’s Birthday Gift” Bull wakes Ben early for his 18th birthday, gives him his WWII flight jacket and shares memories of the day Ben was born. The cue opens with muted trumpets sounding over tremolo violins. Ben’s Theme enters somberly with woodwinds and bass replacing the solo oboe with the celesta. As Bull warily reveals his softer side we hear tremolo violins play against woodwinds and a repeating celesta cadence. A string bridge leads into a refulgent expression of the Family Theme alight with sparkling celesta. Solo oboe leads kindred woodwinds into a tender rendering of Bull’s Theme that concludes with a tender flute line. This cue is yet another in the continuing stream of beauty that is this score. Folks, it does not get any better than this. Continuing with “Birthday Letter”, we see Ben reading a letter from his mom where she expresses that his gentleness is the trait she most admires in a man. The cue is scored with the Family Theme that is first carried by solo violin, with celesta, harp and woodwind accompaniment that swells with tutti strings for a lush and full rendering of the theme before subsiding with the fading sunset light with a solo violin. Again, this cue is the type of moment in film score for which I thirst. This is yet another score highlight.
“Bees and…” returns us to a pastoral setting where Ben and Toomer are seen collecting flowers, with Ben showing some trepidation for the many bees. The cue opens with a solo flute prelude that ushers in the Friendship Theme again emoted by woodwinds. At 0:25 we segue into Ben’s Theme carried by solo oboe, celesta and kindred woodwinds. After an opening statement the theme becomes refulgent with violins playing against sparking celesta, which fade into nothingness. In “Trouble”, Red, a bully and bigot, taunts Toomer who upends him in a fight and disgraces him publicly in front of his friends, thus setting the stage for retribution. The cue opens when Red shows up at Toomer’s and shoots one of his dogs. Repeating woodwind phrases set to muted horns play over a repeating low register pizzicato triplet to set the tension. When Red shoots a dog, discordant violins enter over contrabass. As he threatens to shoot another, the woodwind horn motif returns. An intensifying string sustain and crash signals a misfire that mortally wounds Toomer. Harsh horns and contrabass raise tension as Red recognizes his misdeed and flees. But his flight it is for naught as Toomer sets the pack upon him and he is ravaged amidst a cacophony of horrific horns and contrabass that ends in an eerie violin sustain. Continuing on at 2:34 with “Ben Finds Toomer”, Ben defies his father’s orders and drives to Toomer’s aid. Pounding timpani enter over the violin sustain and are joined by discordant horn blasts as he discovers a dying Toomer. Celli, bass and marimba reprise the shifting chords and percussive ostinato cadence of the tension motif first heard in “Bull in the Rain”. With Toomer’s passing with the fading of the ostinato, the alarm is raised in “Aftermath” at 4:50 with pounding timpani and horns as Ben stops the car as his father’s car joins him. After being berated for disobeying his orders, Ben rebukes his father and drives off leaving a stunned Bull. Bernstein scores the confrontation with a twisted variant of the Santini Mystique Motif.
“Looking for Bull” is a sad scene where a drunken Bull vents his wrath on Lillian until Ben and his siblings come to her aid. This ‘rebellion’ against his authority causes a disconsolate Bull to leave his traumatized family. Bernstein chooses to score the aftermath of this confrontation with a plaintive solo flute line supported by piano and sad strings. At 0:50 solo saxophone and strummed bass emote Bull’s Theme as Ben, at his mother’s behest, searches for his father. Muted trumpets take up the theme when he finds Bull collapsed under a tree. “Arabelle” opens with trumpets that give way to tender strings as Ben at last confides to Bull that he loves him. The scene shifts at 0:15 to Prom night where we see Ben and his sister head off to the celebration. We first hear tender violins rendering the Friendship Theme, which give way to Bull’s Theme carried on saxophone and trumpet.
“Lillian” is a short cue that is never the less very complex musically as Bernstein infuses it with a myriad of themes. The cue serves as the backdrop to Marine Officers arriving at the house to tell Lillian that Bull had died in a plane crash. The music opens sadly with tremolo strings, glockenspiel and chimes from whence arises on woodwinds the classical “Dies Irae” Death Theme. This in turn gives way to a fleeting statement of Bull’s Theme by muted French horns, and violins. This in turn yields to a solo flute, which ushers in a lamentation carried by piano, low register strings and horns. I normally eschew commenting on short cues, but in this case I must say what Bernstein accomplishes in 1:14 minutes is nothing short of extraordinary!
In “Confession”, as Lillian sits alone mourning her husband, solo violin, harp, glockenspiel, solo flute and solo oboe tenderly render the Friendship Theme. At 0:50 as Ben joins her, we hear the Santini Mystique Motif emoted with sul ponticello strings, muted horns, harp glissandi and glockenspiel. This gives way at 1:26 to Ben’s admission of guilt in often wishing his father had crashed. Harp glissandi and oboe usher in Bull’s Theme carried by woodwinds and solo saxophone. The cue concludes with solo violin, which emotes with supreme beauty the Friendship Theme. This is again an exquisite cue.
The film concludes with “Intro To End Credits” where Ben realizes he is now head of the family as they pack their car and prepare to depart for their new life. We hear a reprise of Bull’s Theme, which sounds on solo oboe with piano that gives way to a final noble statement by oboe and strings. At 0:55 we segue into the “End Credit Overture” where we are provided a wondrous interplay between the syncopated Friendship Theme and the sumptuous Family Theme which closes with a solo flute providing counterpoint. These final three cues are all very well constructed.
The following are all source music cues which were added to provide each scene with the necessary ambiance; we have the classic tango of “Restaurant Source” which takes place at a local Spanish restaurant where Bull and his fellow Marines celebrate their victory, the song “Fascination”, also played in the restaurant, which was adapted from the original by Fermo Dante Marchetti & Maurice de Féraudy, pop music in “Officers’ Club” and “Getting Drunk”, for Bull, his friend Virgil and Ben at the club, rock ‘n’ roll music in “Locker Room” for Ben, his teammates and Bull in the locker room, a country vibe in “Radio Source” which was excised from the film, and lastly, the classic Americana ballad “Moon River” and the golden oldie “Goodnight, Sweetheart” for the prom.
Two bonus tracks are provided for the album. “The Santini Mystique (Main Title—film version)” was a rewrite of the original Main Title. Bernstein removed the violins and viola to lower the musical register of the orchestra and replaced the bell ostinato with woodwinds. In addition syncopated fanfare was added to play against the existing main horn line. The end result is a more dark, portentous and militaristic opening of the film. The second cue, “Inauguration (UCSB)” is not related to the film, but is instead a musical piece he composed for the inauguration of Charles Huttenback as third chancellor of the University Of California Santa Barbara. This vintage piece is pure Bernstein and simply abounds with the traditional flavor of the Wild West. It features syncopated fanfare, classic snare drum percussion and a march that serves to propel this piece forward with energy. It is just classic Americana and for me, and a most unexpected and welcome treat!
This is a marvelous restoration of Bernstein’s complete score! With the exception of two cues taken from the film’s monaural music stem, this premiere presentation was mixed from the original Warner Bros. 1/2″ three-track stereo masters. The quality is excellent and I must commend Lukas Kendall and Neil S. Bulk for yet another exceptional release! It suffices to say that this score offers enduring testimony to the genius of Elmer Bernstein. He provides a complex score with a multiplicity of themes and motifs that successfully speak to the film’s compelling emotional narrative. His use of instruments and interplay of themes give the score a richness and emotional power too often missed in contemporary scores. If you love beautiful melodies and seek a listening experience that will have an enduring emotional resonance, then this is the score for you!
Buy the Great Santini soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- The Santini Mystique (Main Title — Original Version) (2:14)
- Restaurant Source (3:24)
- Fascination (written by Fermo Dante Marchetti and Maurice de Féraudy) (1:23)
- Ben and Bull (1:36)
- New Home (1:10)
- Bull in the Rain (1:47)
- Mother and Son (1:13)
- The Boys/Idyll (2:57)
- Ben’s Birthday Gift (2:16)
- Birthday Letter (1:23)
- Officers’ Club (2:41)
- Getting Drunk (3:16)
- Bees and… (1:34)
- Locker Room (2:00)
- Trouble/Ben Finds Toomer/Aftermath (5:52)
- Looking for Bull (1:48)
- Arabelle (1:08)
- Radio Source (1:07)
- Moon River (written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer) (2:17)
- Goodnight, Sweetheart (written by Ray Noble, Jimmy Campbell and Reg Connelly) (1:20)
- Lillian (1:10)
- Confession (2:25)
- Intro to End Credits/End Credit Overture (3:22)
- The Santini Mystique (Main Title — Film Version) [BONUS] (2:27)
- Inauguration (UCSB) [BONUS] (4:07)
Running Time: 55 minutes 57 seconds
Film Score Monthly FSM Vol.14 No.13 (1979/2011)
Music composed by Elmer Bernstein. Conducted by David Spear. Orchestrations by Elmer Bernstein and Peter Bernstein. Recorded and mixed by John Norman. Edited by Else Blangsted. Album produced by Lukas Kendall and Neil S. Bulk.