THE GREAT SANTINI -- At the Outer Circle 1.

Lt. Col. Bull Meechum is a Marine's Marine.

He brooks nothing but blind obedience from his command (whom he advises to accept his word as if he were God) or from his family -- who grudgingly endure his blind rages, his early-morning "musters," his obsession with winning, his drill-sergeant approach to fatherhood and, most of all, his inability to display tenderness in any but the most momentary lapses.

But Bull Meechum is not a caricature.

Robert Duvall skillfully plays him as the complex anachronism that he is: the Great Santini, the World War II flying ace who in 1962 is a hero without a war, a rowdy combatant obsessed with a service that no longer wants him, reduced to commanding a jet fighter wing in Beaufort, S.C.

The Great Santini, directed by Lewis John Carlino and based on a book of the same name by Pat Conroy, is a thoughtful, moving production with a superb cast that also includes Blythe Danner as Meechum's gentle, understanding wife, who accepts Bull for what he is, and the acting find of 1980, Michael O'Keefe as their 18-year-old son.

The relationship between young Ben and his father is the spine of a many-ribbed story.

Meechum is consumed with turning Ben into a man. To Meechum a man is a Bull Meechum Marine -- hard-driving, hard-drinking and never able to turn the other cheek.

But Ben is a sensitive youngster, drawn to his mother, yet trapped between resentment of his father's crassness and a simultaneous yearning for his father's approval.

In Ben's first varsity basketball game, Meechum storms from the stands to insist that the teenager retaliate against an opponent who has been fouling all night. A confused, pressured Ben gives in to his father's bullying and seriously injures the player, then sobs in the locker room when he realizes he acted like a Meechum and cries in agreement at each reprimand from his coach.

In one of the most revealing scenes, young Ben refuses to give in to his father, who wants to continue a backyard basketball game his son won fairly in front of the whole family. Meechum follows his son into the house and up the stairs to the boy's room, bouncing the basketball off his son's head, trying to goad him into a confrontation Bull Meechum could win, taunting, "Bet you're going to cry." With both hate and pity Ben rebukes his father, then slams the door to his room. That night, in what Ben's mother tells him is the only way his father could say he was sorry, the "Great Santini" practices basketball in the pouring rain in view of Ben's window.

The antagonisms between the two melt occasionally. On Ben's 18th birthday Ben downs double martinis and passes out -- to his father's satisfaction, even though the drinking spree ruins the family's carefully planned surprise party.

The production staggers in a contrived ending. After disobeying a "direct order" from his father by going to the aid of a retarded young black friend (Stan Shaw) who is set upon by crackers -- an action his mother tells him later "freed" him from his father -- Ben lets his father off the hook too easily.

After assaulting his wife in a drunken rage, Bull Meechum staggers out of the house. Ben, at his mother's behest, searches for his father in the middle of the night and finds him blubbering under a tree, pouring out to the darkness the tenderness and love he felt for his family that he could not bring himself to give them directly. "I love you," Ben tells him as he helps him home.

Despite the artificial ending -- which needs an accident and leaves the hardly believable impression that Ben will walk his father's path after all -- The Great Santini is a powerfully written and acted movie.

Strangely, it was almost lost to feature-film distribution. After opening and closing quickly under a variety of titles in small test markets, the film was sold to cable television and in-flight movie distributors last spring by Orion Pictures, which helped finance and distributed the picture.

But the persistence of its producer, Charles A. Pratt, got the film an engagement at a small Manhattan theater last summer, where it opened to critical acclaim and quickly developed a following that belatedly propelled it to the nationwide distribution it deserves.