Good Dads/Bad Dads: A Tribute to Cinematic Fathers

I can’t remember the first film I watched with my dad Jim.  However, I do remember what I affectionately call my “Martin Scorsese summer.”  I spent three weeks in the hospital following an appendix operation and decided to tackle the American Film Institute’s 100 Years...100 Movies from my sickbed.  My dad was a major presence during this event, only leaving my side to go to rent the videos from the list.  I can still remember him personally recommending Fargo (1996).  My eventual career as a Cinema Studies Professor can be traced back to that hospital bed and my dad’s trips to Blockbuster Video.

Another course on the informal side of my film education came from my eventual father-in-law Larry.  At first, Larry resented me for dating his daughter Nicole (not for any specific reason, simply because of that natural protective instinct a father feels for his daughter).  In order to sooth his unhappiness, I asked Nicole what his hobbies were.  She started to list them off (“Hunting, fishing...”), and I began to feel my stomach drop.  She added, “But he likes Westerns.”  I had never been a huge fan of the genre, but I would become one thanks to Larry.  We finally bonded over our admiration for John Ford’s collaborations with John Wayne. 

Despite these anecdotes, my two fathers are not cinephiles.  Larry’s tastes begin with The Searchers (1956) and end with Lonesome Dove (1989).  When I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) for the first time, Jim was quick to note his distaste.  “If you ever have difficulty sleeping, turn that movie on.  You’ll never make it to the part that takes place in space,” he said.  My dad used to like Quentin Tarantino movies, but I don’t think he has the patience for them anymore. 

One of the last films we watched together is one of his favorites: Robert Benton’s Nobody’s Fool (1994).  The film stars Paul Newman as a crotchety, failed father who attempts to redeem himself in the eyes of son (Dylan Walsh) and the town he lives in.  I think the film resonates with him because it reminds him of his two fathers.  Thankfully, neither of my fathers needed to follow Newman’s trajectory towards absolution.  We shared many of the experiences outlined in Benjamin Sampson’s video essay on good dads: the life lessons, the cultural education, the enrichment of an accomplishment brought by their pride. 

Ironically, if there is a larger lesson to be taken from Ben and I’s diptych, it’s that bad dads are far more memorable than good dads.  Many of the most beloved films of cinema history appear in my contribution:  Citizen Kane (1941), The Godfather (1972), Chinatown (1974), Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Freddy Got Fingered (2001) to name but a few.  Bad dads from Darth Vader and Michael Corleone to Aguirre and Jack Torrence emanate a magnetic, horrifying, presence that provide filmmakers with the manifestation of a potent conflict whose universality stems from its intimate proximity to the homestead.  The Shining (1980) continues to terrify not because an anonymous murderer is wielding an axe in a haunted hotel, but because a father is turning on his son.  The pessimistic ending to Chinatown hits the viewer like a punch in the gut because Noah Cross’s bad deeds perpetuate themselves without end or punishment (a related point:  most of cinema’s bad dads gain their status because they are aggressive towards their children, be it in the form of physical and/or sexual violence, and not because they are neglectful).  Essentially, the influence of Sophocles’s tragedies remain as emotionally potent as they were 2,000 years ago when they were first performed.--Drew Morton 

Drew Morton is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at Texas A&M University-Texarkana.  His criticism, articles, and video essays have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Senses of Cinema, animation: an interdisciplinary journal, Press Play, and  He is the co-founder and co-editor of in[Transition], the first peer-reviewed academic journal of videographic film and moving image studies. 

Benjamin Sampson is a Ph.D. candidate in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.  His video essays on Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Orson Welles’s F for Fake (1973) have appeared in Press Play and [in]TransitionHe is currently researching the intersection between Hollywood and religious institutions.