Where Have All the Fathers Gone? Good Dads are Rare in Cinema

Fathers on film get short shrift as role models. This may be that movies, or rather screenplays need drama, and drama usually spells conflict. So if it is a movie where fatherhood is a theme, Dad is portrayed as either clueless (The Ice Storm, Back To The Future, disengaged (The Incredibles) or overprotective (Finding Nemo), faltering morally (The Bicycle Thief, Catch Me If You Can), generally unsupportive or aware of who their child actually is (C.R.A.Z.Y., Paranorman, How To Train Your Dragon, The Little Mermaid, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Brave, The Croods…basically most modern American animated movies), dangerously obsessive (The Mosquito Coast), violent and abusive (The Shining, Precious, The War Zone), or simply abandon the household all together (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Perhaps the worst ever is Daniel Plainview. As essayed by Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, he is a borderline sociopath who raises his boy as a cute, therefore effective, prop for his unfettered capitalistic ambitions and all but abandons him -twice- when that purpose is served.

Often when the dad is an encouraging, loving role-model, they exist only in memory (see Contact, below) or are eliminated after first act of the film (Leto Atreides in Dune, The Magistrate in Sansho The Bailiff, Mustafa in The Lion King). Even more often, the best dads seen on film are surrogate fathers rather than biological ones: Pa Kent in Superman, Ben Parker in Spiderman, John Hurt in Hellboy (if comics are your thing) or the kindly projectionist in Cinema Paradiso, Robin Williams in (take your pick) Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting, Tom Hanks in Catch Me If You Can, and of course Bilbo Baggins to his nephew Frodo in Lord of the Rings.

A good father increases his child’s wonder and engagement with the world, provides a safe-haven for health of spirit and body, and provides the toolset for his child to go out in the world. He offers a sense or humour, fair and calm evaluation of situations both good and bad, and hopefully a little dignity in how one goes about their business. Looking around the web amongst the terribly repetitive ‘Best of’ kind of lists for movie dads, not only do we see a scarcity of truly good paternal role models, but those cobbling together these things favour the fathers that either drowning in their good intentions with no clue at what to do, as in the Vacation films or are cloyingly overbearing as in either version of the Father of the Bride, or they choose the unending tirades of violence and revenge – take your pick: Kick-Ass (Nic Cage), Taken (Liam Neeson), The Godfather (Marlon Brando), Die Hard (Bruce Willis), Hanna (Eric Bana), In The Bedroom (Tom Wiklinson), Death Wish (Charles Bronson), Road To Perdition (Tom Hanks). These are films that showcase parenting as a means for their kids to survive by violence, enact violent revenge and retribution for harm done to their child, or commit violence as a living to raise their family and while (amazingly) are not completely bankrupt of parenting ideals, they are hardly the shining examples to hold up.

So now that we have the bad out of the way, and have partially defined what to look for in a good cinema father, here are a few films in which the fathers represented offer some respectability to the institution.

Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck, TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD)

Clearly the easiest and most shining example on the list, Finch is a man of significance in his community with a very straight moral compass, and a sense of dignity about his affairs, even when stumping for one of cinema’s great movie speechs. He stands up for himself and his family under no small amount of social pressure for defending those with less privilege in a time and part of the country that under the cloud or racism. More than that, he is gentle and kind with his children without ever pampering or over-entitling him. The film was made when America was at her greatest, and Peck’s portrayal remains perhaps the most iconic movie-dad ever committed to cinema. In short, he leads by examples, means what he says and says what he means. To further underscore his parental excellence, the final shot of the film is Atticus warmly watching his son while he sleeps.

Ted Arroway (David Morse, CONTACT)

David Morse is a curious actor, he can be play an unrequited monster (Dancer in the Dark, 12 Monkeys) or in the case of his Ted Arroway in Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, the warmest of father figures. Like Atticus Finch, he is a single parent, so is responsible for imparting both sides of the parenting equation to his young daughter. Instilling a love of communication and curiosity in his daughter both on earth and in heaven (or rather, outer space) and perhaps most important, a sense of patience and practicality (“turn the knob slower“) upon his daughter Ellie. His pride at his daughters accomplishment, and wonder at the vastness of the universe is also communicated very well to both her and the audience.

Chef Chu (Lung Sihung, EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN)

A third Widowed father (I am sensing a trend here), Mr. Chu maintains his relationship with his three very different daughters via a large Sunday meal prepared by his own hands. As each of his daughters push further into the modern and western model of women with corporate careers, he offers them a place for their problems at the table without (vocalized) judgement of them. While Mr. Chu is undeniably old fashioned (and reserved) China in a fast-paced and complicated globalized world, he imparts a very real sense of tradition to ground all the craziness. His daughters do not miss these meals, not because he forces them to come, but rather that its how they communicate with their father and each other. Mr. Chu exhibits a quiet dignity and that is not without charm, such as when he starts preparing elaborate lunches for a friends daughter to take to school. He may be a little more reserved than the other dads on this list, but it is clear he has found a some sort of balance in the world with his family.

‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey/Steven Maturin (Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany as surrogate dads, MASTER AND COMMANDER)

Young Lord Blakeney is doing his duty at sea at a very young age. While an officer, he is only 13 years old and exceptionally quite mature, is very much still a child. With his real father presumably safe on English Soil, he is on the Acheron, a military ship under the command of Jack Aubrey. Early in the film Blakeney loses his arm to infection from splinters caused by enemy canon fire. In a very powerful scene, it is clear that Jack loves the boy and content to play the role of surrogate father. The ships doctor, who indeed severs the wounded arm, also takes him under wing, and a large part of the films characterization is the push-pull of the Military – Science teachings upon the boy. There is a power to teaching the young officer wonder at the variety and mystery of the Natural world and the sacrifices to be made at the hands of leadership and duty. Ultimately one suspects that Lord Blakeney would rise to be a very great, and fulfilled man had there been any sequels to the film with such excellent role models and stand-in-dads.

Dill (Stanley Tucci, EASY A)

Spell it with your peas!” is the giddy suggestion from Stanley Tucci’s movie-dad, Dill, upon hearing his daughter got the boot from class for uttering foul language because he doesn’t want her to repeat the word out loud in front of her younger brother. Dill is acutely aware of his daughters adolescence, but feels he has taught her so much about being a good human being (this is of course off screen before the setting of the film, but clear in his body language) that he is willing to let her make her own mistakes. And yet it also makes it clear that while he respects her intelligence and her space, he is there if she needs him. Dill is unabashedly geeky, but clearly has a great relationship with his equally self-deprecating wife (Patricia Clarkson, also a great movie-mom) and they want to lead by the example of their love and playfulness to their children. As much as I liked Easy A, the parenting part of the film is easily my favourite part. While it is rather unabashed in its aim to be a modern John Hughes picture, Dill trumps any of the well rounded parent characters in any of Hughes’ pictures (Yes, including the excellent Harry Dean Stanton in Pretty in Pink).

Tatsuo Kusakabe (Shigesato Itoi, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO)

One of my favourite movie Dads in one of the best parenting movies of all time. Professer Kusakabe’s wife is sick in the hospital, and he is moving his daughters into a new house in the countryside. Wanting to make the best of the transition from city to country, without mom present, he encourages his daughters to help him make the old house livable for their family, while giving them the freedom to explore the grounds at their own pace. He assuages fears with laughter, but is never dishonest about their mothers condition (which I do not believe is fatal, but still serious.) While the littlest daughter Mei does go missing on account of his not being there, he deals with the situation, erring on the side of giving his children freedom rather than suffocating them. My Neighbor Totoro is a wonderful movie that ever parent should show their children, not only for its magic and whimsy, but also for its novel take on parenting.

Pod (Tomokazu Miura (or Will Arnett/Mark Strong if you prefer the USA/UK Dubs) THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY)

Yes, there are two Studio Ghibli movies on this list, most likely because, unlike their American equivalent, Disney, Ghibli tends to craft their tales around unbroken family units and incorporates their precocious young heroes into the greater social fabric, instead of constantly rebelling or subsuming it. So, I will happily include the often overlooked (or outright dismissed) animated adaptation of The Borrowers because indeed, the dad in this one is magnificent. The movie’s first chief incident is Pod, the father, taking his daughter on her first ‘borrowing’ mission. He gently guides her up the lengthy route from their tiny abode below the floor boards into the vast and intimidating world above. He helps her, but gives her space. The image of Pod quietly holding the light and waiting for his daughter to complete her climb is a powerful one. Further, when Arrietty gets entangled with a ‘big person’ in the form of the visting boy who is at the house to convalesce from physical ailment and prepare for heart surgery, her father calmly makes decisions while never outright belittling his daughter for her discoveries. The man is an ocean of calm, but you can see the care and the love painted in the margins. The whole film is that way, there is a lot of depth underneath those quiet, serene surfaces.

The Man (Viggo Mortensen, THE ROAD)

OK, this is the toughest one on the list, because unlike most of the other entries here, the main characters are in constant danger, and the world is not full of wonders or promise, but rather a post apocalyptic wasteland where death comes in many forms and life is a living hell. Dad here is also a widower – but 99% of the worlds population is, gone, so there is that – but feels more importantly than he and his son surviving in this world of ash, is that they survive together. While this is ultimate not meant to be (as death comes to us all in the end,) I imagine that the soul of the father watching down might be comforted that they boy is picked up by a potentially complete family near the end of the film, one of the very few positive notes in an otherwise soul-crushing downer of a film. Nevertheless, while travelling to some vague destination over the course (coarse?) of the film, and the Cormac McCarthy novel it was based upon, the father instills what is left, under the circumstances, of a moral code upon his son (i.e. no unnecessary killing and definitely no cannibalism) along with a number of survival skills and a fair bit of kindness and love. Sometimes that is what matters most.

Kurt Halfyard
Resident culture snob.

18 Comments

  1. Michael Polley in Stories We Tell.

    …and the dad in Billy Elliot. While he’s unsupportive at the start, the scene where he decides to scab to help support Billy’s dream, essentially turning his back on the thing he believes in most, is heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. You kind of brushed aside the unsupportive dad who doesn’t know their kid but comes to understand them in the end, but in this case I think there’s something to be said for the dad who still doesn’t get it but will sacrifice themselves for their kid anyways.

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  2. I was going to wait a week, but what better place to make my own little announcement:

    I will be trying my best to follow in these movie dad footsteps at the end of October as my wife and I are expecting our first baby! I actually mentioned it on Jandy’s blog early this week, but thought I’d let you all know here.

    I imagine it will curb my writing and film watching quite a bit so expect a lack of reviews from myself after October. Hopefully I’ll find time here and there to stay involved where I can though.

    I’m already getting excited about teaching our little one about the wonders of cinema. As mentioned on Jandy’s blog I’m planning on stealing Kurt’s ‘Kids Talk Film’ idea once they get old enough :)

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    • welcome to the club! My kid is 3 and the most I have been able to show him is Disney/Pixar, with the old Chaplin film in there. Bizarrely, he was captivated by The Insider, for the portion he watched anyways.

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        • Silent cinema was very popular when the kids were very small. Chaplin shorts and Keaton features. Pure visual storytelling without dialogue (they just ignore the intertitles) was a lock when they were very young. As a Bonus, when I took them to Tati’s PLAYTIME in the cinema, I felt they were well prepped.

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      • I cannot wait to show Karina some silent comedy. She might get Keaton first, because I have his shorts on Blu-ray. Of course, by that time, I may have invested in more Chaplin, as well.

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    • Congrats David! Fantastic news…Enjoy the hell out of the experience and savour it since the time really starts to fly at this point (my little guy is about to turn 13…). Well, except for those 3AM feedings and the awake time that follows…B-)

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      • Bob, I had one of those 3AM feedings and awake time just this morning! (I mean, I have the 3AM feedings most mornings, but she was particularly against going back to sleep afterwards this morning.)

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  3. I tried to think of some more classic era ones yesterday, but seemed like everything I thought of actually fell into the “dad LEARNING to be a good dad” category instead of him being a good dad and role model throughout. Stuff like Kramer vs Kramer.

    Thinking about it, it seems like there are far more “good mother” movies (especially if you include the “sacrificial mother” trope, though you might not on this topic) than “good father” ones. Where fathers are concerned, it seems most films that include fathers use them for drama as you say in your intro, as absentee, abusive, or ineffectual or harmful despite being well-intentioned. The prevalence of these stories seems worthy of study by someone with more time than me.

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      • Still haven’t seen Frankenweenie. We opted for PARANORMAN when the three ‘classic horror’ kids flicks came out last year and skipped both Frankenweenie and Hotel Transylvania.

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  4. Double shot of Ellen Page: Her dads in Juno and Whip It, both of em solid folk, played by J.K. Simmons and Daniel Stern respectively

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    • Love both those actors, almost put Simmons on the list above…he is so similar to Tucci that I felt Tucci was just a tad better.

      Reply

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