Genre Blast: Dear Old Dad – Fathers on Film

Fathers’ Day calls for recognition of fatherhood as it is portrayed in the cinema, and that is as varied as the number of film writers and their respective relationships with “dear old Dad.” Relationships with the old man are directly influenced by the type of man the father happens to be. Nurturing or combative, empowering or controlling, a child’s vision of their father is a direct result of how that man approached child-rearing and, later in life, how the inevitable reconciliation that follows the rebellious childhood years progresses. The range of emotion goes from regret to pride, sometimes including both extremes in our feelings for the man who, like or not, shaped who we are and who we will become.

Here, I’ll give respectful nods to The Godfather and The Empire Strikes Back where fatherhood played important peripheral roles, but these five made dear old Dad the center of attention. Pivotal to the plot to the point of overpowering it in some cases, these are the top five fathers, imo, in cinema. If you find the essence of each and put them together, I would imagine that you would have the characteristics of 90% of typical Dads out there in the world.

So here goes…

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Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves)   Vittorio De Sica   (1948)

Post-WWII Italy is the setting for De Sica’s drama of a family struggling to scrabble out a living where being able to work and provide for the family relies entirely on owning a bicycle. Antonio is a good man – the perfect role model for son, Bruno – until his precious, newly acquired bicycle is stolen. Desperation presents options that Antonio would probably not entertain under normal circumstances, the situation calls for action, and Bruno quickly gets schooled in ethics, community and, most important, just how decent a man his father really is. An un-reproachable classic that should be seen by everyone.

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Field of Dreams   Phil Alden Robinson   (1989)

Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) was a typical boomer kid who rebelled against his father most of his youth before settling down and starting a family of his own. His regrets are typical – not playing that game of catch, which is so symbolic of every young man rejecting the father’s ways to go down his own life path. Robinson’s film also features the unique concept of generational adolescent idol worship (Shoeless Joe Jackson of the 1919 baseball scandal and anti-establishment writer Terrance Mann – actually JD Salinger in the original novel). Robinson reminds us that unrealized dreams are the staple for the 90% who fail to become a more glamorous, more successful, and a more together person than our father could ever be. When Ray realizes in the cornfield just exactly for whom he built his baseball diamond, risking everything, and meets the young man face-to-face, there is not a dry eye in the house.

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There Will be Blood   Paul Thomas Anderson   (2007)

Daniel Plainview likely started out focused and ambitious, but by the time his young son is able to travel with him on his quest for oil and life’s golden egg, he has become ruthless and obsessive. Considered one of the best films – if not the best – of the 21st Century so far, the film is anchored in Daniel Day Lewis masterful performance. The hunger for wealth must have been overwhelming when it was possible for a man with a shovel and some elbow grease to locate his fortune without any cynicism to cloud his path. It’s right there; go get it, and knock whoever tries to interfere on their ass, even if it’s your own offspring trying to temper the way. I’ve always found the finale in the bowling alley a bit grand guignol. but the film is a wonder – top marks for writing, directing, and performances, as well as score and cinematography. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the least predictable film directors working today. Let it be said that even though we have no idea where he’ll take us next, we are sure that it will be somewhere we have never gone before and we will not forget it.

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To Kill a Mockingbird     Robert Mulligan   (1962)

If integrity and honor were ever to be mystically trans morphed into a human being, you can bet that human would bear a strong resemblance to Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), the exact polar opposite of Daniel Plainview (above). Principled and moral with a strong-as-steel sense of fairness and social justice, the character of the widowed Atticus Finch and his relationship with Scout, his daughter, develops by way of a racially motivated trial where Atticus is the defense attorney. By watching her father, Scout learns that it’s more important to win the war than just the battle, especially if that war represents a threat to your own beliefs.

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East of Eden    Elia Kazan (1955)

James Dean’s first film – and the only one of his three films to be released in his lifetime – is an interesting take on the Cain and Abel story from Genesis. Of course, the “Adam” figure is the fiery, bible-thumping father (Raymond Massey), who naturally favors brother Aron over Cal (Dean), no matter to what lengths Cal goes to please him and make him proud. It’s a potboiler of a father-son conflict that pulls into the action the estranged mother (Oscar winner Jo Van Fleet) and Abra (Julie Harris), whose attention both brothers are vying for. Reconciliation comes, eventually, but at a huge cost. This is a great film that represents well the ideals of the innocent 50s when one didn’t normally question lofty notions of “goodness” or unforgiving morality.

It would be difficult to come up with five stronger versions of fatherhood than these dudes, but I dare you to try.  When they are not prominently featured in the action, they are ever-present in the psyches of their offspring. That’s the power fathers have – they may not physically give birth, but they are the hands in the clay during the time we take to reach adulthood. With that, Happy Father’s Day to all dads. And I’ll touch a finger to my lips and point to the sky in memory of my own.

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2 thoughts on “Genre Blast: Dear Old Dad – Fathers on Film

  1. Ridiculously great choices Steve! I’m going to add Commando, and don’t laugh, it shows what a father is willing to do to rescue his daughter. Plus it brings back memories of watching these movies with my dad.

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  2. All excellent choices Steve, Atticus Finch is a default for this sort of thing but that is due to how perfect a choice it is. I’m always struck by that final scene in the cornfield in Field of Dreams. Costner’s line delivery “Want to play catch?” is just wonderful. However I will do my best to come up some other suggestions for this list. First off The Godfather, at the heart of that film and the beginning of Michael’s descent into the family business is the simple act of protecting his father in the hospital. Brando’s last scene with Pacino also includes a heart to heart where they the Don speaks openly about how the sins of he the father have now corrupted the son’s path. Sure Don Corleone is a criminal but he is undeniably a good if flawed father and one of the reasons why that series of films remain so compelling. Father of the Bride either with Spencer Tracy or Steve Martin have something to offer about good suburban dads wanting experiencing that moment that has to come for so many fathers of daughters. Pursuit of Happyness, The Road and Warrior also show dads of a different sort. Flawed, scared and yet always trying to be better. Mel Gibson made a career out of vengeance and so there is something in Ransom where instead of trying to exact revenge he is trying to rescue his kid instead. That was a pretty cool Dad no matter what has come to pass in Gibson’s life since. I also liked Beginners with Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer but in the end is there anyone who can top Atticus Finch? I think not.

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