Something that has always fascinated me about Father’s Day is the movies trotted out in the weeks leading up to that Sunday in June, filling a shelf or two at Walmart, Costco and other stores that carry DVDs. Typically, they are westerns and war films. How’s that for fulfilling a stereotype?
And they are often the same films year after year, which tells me that the studios have pallets in warehouses stacked with these DVDs, just waiting to push them into the stores, hoping a few more will be purchased. “Classic” westerns with John Wayne, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper, William Holden and other big stars of Hollywood’s Golden Era, along with World War II films featuring many of the same names.
Most of these movies feature these iconic stars in heroic, macho roles, idealized men putting their lives on the line for the greater good and becoming better for it, or being martyred, in what are generally bundled together as “action movies.” But few westerns and war films focus on heads of families, as “fathers,” per se. So it has always seemed an odd choice for Father’s Day.
These days it’s even harder to find traditional families depicted in movies of any genre. Westerns have generally fallen out of favor and war movies are few and far between but there are still plenty of action pictures. But when they do feature a father figure, it’s usually a bad dad who wishes he’d done better, as in the recent “A Good Day to Die Hard,” in which an estranged father and son (Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney) unite to take down bad guys in Russia in between prickly conversations about how dad was never there to raise his kids.
Vintage films more often feature fathers actually parenting, as with James Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), Spencer Tracy in “Father of the Bride” (1950), Topol in “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971) and, although we tend to think of his movie persona as a dashing bachelor, Cary Grant in “My Favorite Wife” (1940), “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” (1948), “Room For One More” (1951) and “Houseboat” (1958).
For some reason some of the most beloved dads in movies are single fathers, as with the aforementioned “Houseboat” Favorites include Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), Dustin Hoffman in “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), Sean Connery in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989), Tom Hanks in “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993) and Will Smith in “The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006). And there are plenty of childless surrogate fathers, such as Richard Dreyfuss in “Mr. Holland’s Opus” (1995). Even the best animated-film examples are single dads: “Pinocchio” (1940), “The Lion King” (1994), “Finding Nemo” (2003).
But there are some good traditional-family fathers of integrity on display if you look for them, such as Roy Scheider in “Jaws” (1975), Michael Keaton in “Mr. Mom” (1983), Steve Martin in the remake of “Father of the Bride” (1991) and Tom Skerritt in “A River Runs Through It” (1992), among others.
One of the best movies about fathers wanting to do better at parenting is a little independent Christian film titled “Courageous” (2011), about four police officers and a handyman, each in a very different family situation, who make a pact to be better husbands and fathers and then work toward that goal. It just may be the best movie you never heard of.
Chris Hicks is the author of Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind: A Parent's Guide to the Movies.