10 great films about fathers

From The Godfather to The Shining, movies teach us many lessons about good parenting… and bad.

24 August 2017

By Brogan Morris

Hotel Salvation (2016)

Cinema has had its share of wholesome fathers – To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and The Lion King (1994) are but two classic movies about the good father and the example he sets his children – but from East of Eden (1955) through The Mosquito Coast (1986) and onto 2016’s Fences, the most memorable movie fathers have tended to be deeply flawed. Often, movie fathers are simple, recognisably human individuals with their own selfish and impulsive desires, sometimes unwittingly impacting a new generation with their actions.

In Hotel Salvation, Shubhashish Bhutiani’s gentle new comic drama, 77-year-old Daya (Lalit Behl) abruptly requests his middle-aged son Rajiv (Adil Hussain) take him to the Indian holy city of Varanasi, to a guesthouse where he hopes to see out his final days. There, both father and son, the latter a put-upon office worker forever glued to his phone, lament that Daya stifled Rajiv’s passion for writing poetry as a young man, but through their late bout of bonding manage to put differences aside.

To celebrate the release of Hotel Salvation, here are 10 classic films about fatherhood, and the often complicated relationship a father can have with his offspring.

The Kid (1921)

Director: Charles Chaplin

The Kid (1921)

Charlie Chaplin, one of the great cinematic polymaths of the silent age – here, he is the star as well as sole director, writer, producer, editor and composer – used his first opportunity making a full-length feature to tell a personal tale of fathers and sons. In The Kid, Chaplin’s Tramp character finds an unwanted baby among the Los Angeles refuse, deciding to raise him into a precocious street sidekick (played by five-year-old Jackie Coogan, who proved extraordinarily gifted at both comedy and drama).

The execution may be comedic, but the story’s source is tragedy: a father, estranged like Chaplin’s own, abandons mother and baby, leaving the latter to grow up in poverty, as Chaplin himself did in Victorian London. Another significant event inspired the film: shortly before production began, Chaplin’s first child, a son, died after just three days. Chaplin’s next move was to spend almost six months playing surrogate father to Coogan, a young performer just like Chaplin was in his youth. He provides Coogan’s kid character with the fairytale ending Chaplin never had, reuniting child with mother as his loving adoptive father looks on.

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Director: Vittorio De Sica

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Perhaps the most desperately human film ever made about a struggle to provide for family, Vittoria De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves is neorealist time capsule first and agonising thriller second. There are no high-speed car chases or explosive set pieces, but the stakes for our protagonist are astronomically high: for Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), recently having secured a job plastering advertisements around depressed postwar Rome, recovering his stolen work bicycle will be the difference between him and his family starving.

Eternally by Ricci’s side on his quest is his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola). Their bond is such that the boy can forgive the father when Ricci in a moment of brutal opportunism is caught trying to steal a bicycle himself. The boy cries, but, understanding the motivation, quietly holds his father’s hand for comfort, the child as much a source of strength to the man as the man is to him.

An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

Director: Yasujirô Ozu

An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

The culmination of a 35-year career and of a late period that regularly repeated similar themes, Yasujiro Ozu’s last film concerns the inevitability of parents one day having to watch their children fly the nest to start lives and families of their own. A widower with two grown children living at home, Ozu regular Chishu Ryu finds himself in a dilemma, feeling pressurised to marry off his 24-year-old daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita) before it’s ‘too late’, but terrified of living – and dying – alone once she’s gone.

As Hirayama (Ryu) locates potential suitors for Michiko, Ozu’s sedate, controlled style gives the impression that everything is slotting into place, at least according to social conventions. Hirayama considers it his duty in 1960s Japan to find Michiko a husband immediately, even though, as is revealed in the rare moments of vulnerability that Ozu allows us to see, it goes against both their wishes to do so.

The Godfather (1972)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

The Godfather (1972)

In the first part of Francis Ford Coppola’s crime saga, mighty silverback of American acting Marlon Brando appropriately takes the role of ageing mafia boss Vito Corleone, the mythical father who casts such a shadow that his presence continues to be felt after his death in this film and on into its sequels. Brando’s Don – father not just to five children, but to a criminal enterprise that stretches from New York to Las Vegas – appears for less than a third of The Godfather’s running time, but it’s around him that the entire film revolves.

In Don Vito’s immediate orbit is son Michael (Al Pacino), the war veteran ‘college boy’ who idolises his adoring father. It’s in part Michael’s fidelity to his father’s legacy that corrupts his good nature, the young Corleone turning ruthless in order to maintain the empire that Dad built for the family, in the process becoming the cold parent to his own children that his father never was.

The Shining (1980)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

The Shining (1980)

Stanley Kubrick, looking to make a hit after his period epic Barry Lyndon (1975) commercially underperformed, settled on adapting Stephen King’s bestselling novel The Shining into a blockbuster horror. It would be a change of pace in more ways than one. Where Kubrick’s previous film featured a father-son relationship of sheer mutual devotion (the final scene that Ryan O’Neal and his on-screen heir David Morley share in Barry Lyndon is Kubrick at his most nakedly emotional), The Shining would be a fantastical study of paternal guilt wherein the family patriarch tries to kill his own child.

For Kubrick – whose adaptation King hated – the story of a writer driven by a haunted hotel to murder his family was an exploration of inherent human ‘evil’, but for the book’s author The Shining more simply addressed the shame of being a new parent with mixed feelings about fatherhood. However you interpret the film, it doesn’t take much to turn The Shining’s regular joe (played in the film by Jack Nicholson) infanticidal – just a glass of bourbon and a dalliance with an evil spirit.

Missing (1982)

Director: Costa-Gavras

Missing (1982)

A film about fatherhood in which we never see the father interact with the child, Missing is nevertheless a staggering portrait of one man’s adoration for his son. The backbone of Missing is a true-to-life political thriller narrative typical of Costa-Gavras – American journalist Charles Horman (John Shea) disappears in Chile during Pinochet’s US-backed coup, prompting his father (Jack Lemmon) to fly in from New York to personally investigate – which the director uses to explore a fraught relationship between father and child.

Through Ed Horman’s interactions with witnesses, daughter-in-law Beth (Sissy Spacek) and tricky American embassy officials, we gather what kind of parent he was: impatient, stern and dismissive of his son’s accomplishments. Only in Charlie’s absence is it revealed how indefatigably committed to his son Ed always was, astonishingly relayed through Jack Lemmon’s performance, one of the actor’s very best.

The Sacrifice (1986)

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

The Sacrifice (1986)

Prophet of slow cinema Andrei Tarkovsky was not aware his life would soon be cut short by aggressive cancer while he was making The Sacrifice, but in retrospect it seems he must have intuited it. A Swedish-language feature made in the home of longtime Tarkovsky inspiration Ingmar Bergman (with several of that director’s frequent collaborators rounding out the cast and crew) and with mortality, legacy and the end of days as key themes, Tarkovsky’s apocalyptic drama reads like a final statement.

With some catastrophic world event looming, Alexander (Erland Josephson) makes a promise to God to sacrifice his own young son if Armageddon is postponed, Tarkovsky – having fled the Soviet Union the year before shooting – at last addressing God explicitly in his work without fear of censorship and tackling fatherhood as an expat who had left his child behind in Russia. The Sacrifice is dedicated to Andrei Jr, who would collect the film’s Grand Prix award from Cannes and reunite with his father in Paris before the latter succumbed to his cancer aged 54.

Affliction (1997)

Director: Paul Schrader

Affliction (1997)

Though it sets out its stall rather uninterestingly as a rote murder mystery, with cop Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) investigating an apparent deadly hunting accident in his small New Hampshire town, Affliction is gradually revealed to actually be about the toxic inheritance of town drunk Glen Whitehouse (James Coburn), the impact of whose abusive parenting has manifested itself in various ways in his three children.

Where Glen’s daughter is a born-again Christian and his son Rolfe (Willem Dafoe) is a meek intellectual, Wade has grown up to display serious emotional issues, the trauma metastasised into anxiety and rage. Coburn won a best supporting actor Oscar for playing a louse whose decades of excessive drinking have transformed him into a boorish spectre, but Nolte – physically an echo of his on-screen father, the right-on casting highlighting Wade’s inability to ever escape the old man – matches him as a disintegrating divorcee who is desperate not to turn into his dad.

Somewhere (2010)

Director: Sofia Coppola

Somewhere (2010)

Inspired by her becoming a mother for the second time and drawn from her experiences touring the world’s hotels with her director father as a child, Sofia Coppola – after Lost in Translation (2003) and Marie Antoinette (2006) again covers the deep existential boredom that apparently comes with fame and privilege, but adds aching heart in the form of a strained father-daughter relationship.

Somehow Coppola’s most distant film and perhaps her most affecting, Somewhere follows Hollywood actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), whose life of endless sex and partying at the Chateau Marmont is interrupted when his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) comes to stay for the summer. Through Coppola’s detached, hazy lens, we experience both Johnny’s numbness and his elation at briefly reconnecting with his daughter, before the numbness resumes when he realises Cleo’s extended visit isn’t enough to cure his deep sense of dissatisfaction.

Starred Up (2013)

Director: David Mackenzie

Starred Up (2013)

Written from experience by former prison therapist Jonathan Asser, Starred Up is one of the best recent films about life on the inside. It’s also one of the decade’s more compellingly twisted illustrations of father-son relations, starring Jack O’Connell as a young offender who is transferred to an adult jail where his father (Ben Mendelsohn) happens to be doing time of his own.

What threatens to be a potentially hokey conceit is lent a bleak realism by Asser’s insider knowledge, director Mackenzie’s immediate style and O’Connell and Mendelsohn’s committed performances. As Neville Love, Mendelsohn effortlessly exudes the kind of lethal menace that so many directors have asked from him since Animal Kingdom (2010), but there’s a secret dimension to his character here, concealed until late in the game. As Neville risks his neck to save his boy from a grisly fate in the film’s final act, we discover that though prison has stripped away so much of his humanity, paternal instinct remains.

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