The Great Santini is Pat Conroy’s third book and his first novel, a follow-up to his well-received memoir of teaching poor black children on Yamacraw Island. Adapted into critically acclaimed retitled Conrack after the way the kids pronounced his name, some argue that The Water Is Wide should actually be considered Conroy’s debut novel as it is an ambiguous blending of fact and fiction. Nevertheless, most critical opinion categorizes his 1976 semi-autographical story about a tough-as-nails Marine pilot and his strained relationship with his children to fulfill that role.
With a father who was a pilot in the USMC, Conroy is a self-described military brat and that background of moving from one place to another sets the backdrop for the story of The Great Santini when the character based on Conroy’s dad—actually named Wilbur “Bull” Meecham—is transferred to a small town in South Carolina where the family experiences a culture clash. The title of the novel is the name by which Col. Meecham likes to refer to himself. In this paradoxically flamboyant and orderly, despotic and loving, narcissistic and deeply insecure fighter pilot, Conroy created one of the truly memorable peacetime military figures in American literary history.
One critic of the Conroy’s fictionalized portrayal of his father was the Great Santini himself. So profoundly troubled was Donald Conroy by how he was represented by his son in Pat’s first novel that that the real life mirrored the fiction which mirrored history as the love-hate relationship between son and father in the novel reignited again. Father and son would be remain estranged until the film adaptation was released. On the heels of Robert Duvall’s powerfully magnetic Oscar-nominated performance as the man based on him, Donald Conroy became a minor celebrity in his own right once word got out that there was a real Great Santini out there. (His father was not the only family member to react negatively; Conroy's own grandparents informed him that the were no longer interested in maintaining contact with him or family due to what they felt was an outrageous invasion of family privacy.)
Like The Water Is Wide, the film adaptation of Conroy’s novel initially was released under a title. Fearing audiences would think the film was about trapeze performers or magicians, it was tested in different cities under the titles “Sons and Heroes” and “Reaching Out” before finally being released as The Ace. The change didn’t help and the film played to near-empty theaters for a just a few weeks before pulled. Shortly thereafter it debuted as The Great Santini on HBO and became one of the first box office bombs to attain wide mainstream recognition primarily on the basis of being placed into heavy rotation on the still burgeoning industry of national cable networks. (Not that some sterling reviews and two Oscar nominations hurt, either.)