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Daddy Cool: Fathers of Film

Posted 13.06.17  - Culture

As Father's Day approaches, Jack Seale takes a look at the best dads of the silver screen and what lessons their wit, risk-taking and heroics can teach us all

All dads have dreams of performing spectacular heroics for their children to save them or just to impress them. Cinema has that covered, but your Father's Day screen idols needn't be capable of storming yachts and shooting rooms full of Albanians like Liam Neeson in Taken (2008). Film's most affecting fathers have a different set of skills.

Softening one's carefully maintained manly demeanour – a little, not too much – is a sign you're getting it right. Witness Christopher Plummer as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1965): he begins the movie as a bereft, stern, upright disciplinarian, only to be quickly melted by music and romance. That said, he continues to look sharp in crisp white collars and tall Styrian jackets, and can outwit Nazis when required.

Williams's comic 'tour de force', as his character sweetens the pill of dinner and bedtime by making them one big performance, is also a hymn to the power of dad jokes.

Evading the Third Reich with help from a hot singing nun is still a bit exotic compared to most dads' experiences. How about Ted Kramer, Dustin Hoffman's lone parent in agonisingly sober divorce drama Kramer vs Kramer (1979) Forced to knock work on the head and pay his boy some attention, Ted masters the art of the gentle pep talk, learns how to make his son's favourite French toast, and aces a test that all dads dread: the hospital dash. Even if yours involved waywardly piloting a people-carrier rather than sprinting through the streets of Manhattan, we've all been there. And while the cross-dressing employed by Robin Williams in Kramer vs Kramer’s comedy cousin, Mrs Doubtfire (1993), isn't usually necessary when some reconnection and redemption is needed, its story of a dad learning to take his share of the domestic burden is universal.

Williams's comic tour de force, as his character sweetens the pill of dinner and bedtime by making them one big performance, is also a hymn to the power of dad jokes. What about when there's nothing to laugh at, though? Cinema's bleakest depictions of fatherhood dramatise that feeling of helpless shame when your kid sees you suffering a crisis. Italian neorealist totem The Bicycle Thief (1948) concerns one impoverished man's quest to retain his dignity, with his son by his side; Viggo Mortensen in The Road (2009), meanwhile, is a man helping his boy through the end of the world.

Even the goodwill classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) opens with George Bailey (James Stewart) willing to die to keep his family afloat. He gets his happy ending, though, because he's a key great-dad archetype: the local hero who will sacrifice his dreams if family and friends need him more.

The ultimate example of a screen father setting an example by staying true to his principles is film's best all-around pater, Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). However, although Atticus is a moral paragon whose unwavering, forward-thinking morals make him an idol to his children, he shines brightest not in his big courtroom battles but in quiet times at home, when he's teaching his little ones how to compromise, how to empathise, how to live by one's conscience and do what's right. How to be human, in other words. Cinema's best dads can teach us all that.

Image credit: Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images

Jack Seale - Writer for the Guardian and Radio Times

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