Finding Strong Fathers in Film


by Marc T. Newman [critic]

Once you get past the first four of the Ten Commandments that deal with humans’ relationship to God, the first “horizontal” commandment is that people honor their fathers and mothers (Exodus 20:12). Last month we honored mothers. If you went to church, you may have seen moms getting flowers, perhaps being asked to stand, even receiving applause. The sermon likely extolled the virtues of motherhood with a special emphasis on appreciating the women who raised us.

This Sunday is Father’s Day, and I have, on more occasions than I wished, sat through Father’s Day sermons that primarily explained how men have failed as fathers, and why, if we would just adopt a 3-, 7-, or 12-step plan of self-flagellation and growth, we might be able to become the men God intended. Like most men, I am not the perfect father. Like all people, I am not a perfect person. But how will our children learn to honor their fathers if they can’t even get an attaboy from the pulpit on Father’s Day? They certainly are unlikely to get it at the Cineplex.

Just look at the way in which men are depicted in film. The most popular movie the last two weekends running is The Hangover: a vile, vulgar, pornographic film about males who are chronologically “men,” but who have the character of post-hormonal adolescents. Fathers don’t get better treatment. Imagine That stars Eddie Murphy as a divorced dad who is too busy for his daughter, until he discovers that her magic blanket is the key to killer business deals. By the time he “comes around” for the finale, his conversion is weak – another example of a child teaching a parent how to be an adult.

Many contemporary film fathers are divorced. One wonders how well Larry Daley (Ben Stiller’s character in both Night at the Museum films) would manage as a dad if he did not have an enchanted museum to guard. In the first film he cannot hold a job, and in the second film he is so obsessed with work that he neglects his son. Comb through recent releases and compare the number of films that portray men as moral, responsible champions of their family, as opposed to self-obsessed, immoral, drunken, promiscuous losers. Guess which image gets the most screen time?

It is hard to say if movies influence culture, or if culture is mirrored in movies, but clearly they feed on one another. While we cannot lay all of the blame at the feet of film, it is hard to deny that the consistent portrayal of men as incompetent, infantile, immoral, irresponsible or worse has an effect on how we view men, and how men view themselves. But rather than spend more time looking at the problem, I prefer to offer some solutions. If you are looking for films that create a strong image of dads, here are some suggestions. And if you are a pastor, looking for some good sermon illustrations that show dads doing the right thing, you can go to to get free sermon and teaching illustrations for Father’s Day.

The list of character traits that make a great dad is too long to list, but there are films that portray fathers as committed husbands, caring providers, able defenders, good role models, and self-sacrificing heroes who will stop at nothing to redeem their kids.

The Good Husband

In recent years I have come across few films that startled me as much as the beautiful Marley and Me. Generally, I am not a fan of dog movies, but in Marley and Me the dog (Marley) is merely a catalyst for the relationship between John and Jennifer Grogan. Unlike most films that end with a wedding, Marley and Me begins with one. It is not a candy-coated perfect marriage. But John and Jennifer are adults, and act like it – not in some stultifying, boring way – but with passion and purpose. We watch them grow together, have children, and raise them. But one of my favorite scenes in the film is between John and his friend Sebastian. Sebastian is handsome and adventurous – the “bad boy” who won’t be tied down, but who is not above using Marley to attract single women at the beach. When John and Jennifer hit a rough patch in their marriage, Sebastian is right there pushing divorce as an option.

John says, “We’re not splitting up”
Sebastian replies, “Out of the realm of possibility?”
“There’s nothing she can do, no tantrum too big, no depression too deep, no failure to perform wifely duties that would push you over the edge?”
“Why do you jump right to splitting up? C’mon, buddy – mend it, don’t end it.”

John is a good, strong, loving husband and father, and it shows in his wife and his children. The film is rated PG for a little language, and some sensuality between a husband and wife (something else rarely depicted in film).

The Sacrificing Father

Cinderella Man is the story of heavy-weight boxer James Braddock. A true contender, Braddock gets sidelined during WWII and the Great Depression. He goes from living the high life to living in a hovel with his wife and children. Despite his bleak condition, James faithfully goes to the docks every day looking for work. He still fights whenever he can, but he is so broken down that his bouts, once exciting, are now slow waltzes around the ring to a chorus of boos from the crowd. Everyone thinks he is washed up – but Jim keeps fighting.

His battles in the ring are a metaphor for his battles in life. Once a wealthy celebrity, Jim does not let that stop him from taking any honest work. When he finds he has more month than money, he humbles himself and gets in line for the dole. When his daughter is hungry, he gives her his portion and goes without. When his child becomes ill because they cannot afford to pay the heating bill, he goes back to the money men who profited from his fights when he was in his prime and, literally, with hat in hand, begs them for help. His only goal is to keep his family together and alive. Any shame he might feel is overcome by love.

Despite the desperation of their circumstances, Jim still enforces Biblical morality. When his son is caught stealing a salami, Jim marches him back to the store, makes him apologize, and then listens to his son pour out his anxious heart. Jim tells his son that they do not steal, ever, but reinforces his fatherly affection for his son by telling him that nothing – not poverty or hunger – will ever drive a wedge in their family.

Of course Cinderella Man has a lot of action. Jim Braddock is, after all, a heavy-weight contender. There is plenty of boxing. But at the heart of this film is a father who fights in the ring, but also for his family, sacrificing himself all the way to serve the ones he loves. The film is rated PG-13 for boxing violence and some language.

The Defender

When most people think of director David Mamet, family films do not come to mind. Mamet’s movies are often overflowing with profanity. So imagine everyone’s surprise when Mamet delivered a G-rated family drama based on the play by Terence Rattigan. The Winslow Boy is the kind of film that every Christian who wants to support wholesome, well-made pictures should see.

14-year-old Ronnie Winslow has been expelled from school. He stands accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order. When he comes home to face what he is sure will be paternal wrath, he discovers something incredible about the bond between a father and son. In a stirring scene, Arthur Winslow asks his son about the postal order. Ronnie tries to plead that he didn’t steal it, but Mr. Winslow stops him because he wants to explain something before his son answers. Mr. Winslow tells Ronnie that if he did steal the money, and tells the truth, that Mr. Winslow will not be angry. He adds that if Ronnie lies, Mr. Winslow will know, because lies between fathers and sons cannot be hidden. Mr. Winslow asks his son if he stole the postal order, and Ronnie denies it. Mr. Winslow repeats the question one more time, and again, Ronnie denies stealing the postal order. Satisfied, Mr. Winslow sends him back to his room.

The rest of the film is an account of Mr. Winslow’s tireless efforts to clear his son of wrongdoing. He gives up his time and risks his family’s fortune, all to reestablish his son’s good name. Mr. Winslow will not stop until his son is vindicated. Everyone needs a tireless defender when they are persecuted by an unfair world. Mr. Winslow admirably steps into the gap.

The Leader

Parents are charged by God to educate their children. Unfortunately, as fathers become increasingly infantilized in films, it is often the wise little child that educates the adult. Everything is backward. But there was a time in which fathers, even flawed fathers, still taught the lessons and braved the dangers. In Something Wicked This Way Comes, based on Ray Bradbury’s novel, Charles Halloway, a man old before his time, must do battle with the forces of supernatural evil to save his son, Will, and Will’s best friend, Jim from the dangers posed by their own lusts.

But one of the finest examples of fatherly leadership is depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird, based on the novel by Harper Lee. Atticus Finch, an attorney, is called to defend an African-American man falsely accused of raping a white woman in the pre-civil rights-era South. Atticus is widowed, and is raising his son, Jem, and his daughter, Scout. Taking on the case angers the town’s racists; and it makes life difficult for Atticus, but he will not back down. Instead, throughout the film he takes the time to teach his children how to get along with difficult people; how to value everyone, but especially the poor; how to stand up for the innocent; and how to have self-control, even when you might feel justified in losing it.

In an incredible scene, a local racist spits in Atticus’ face right in front of his daughter. Atticus is the larger, more powerful man. But instead of retaliating, Atticus takes out a handkerchief, wipes the spit off his face, drops the cloth to the dirt, gets into his car with his daughter and drives away. Atticus teaches the children many lessons by telling them the right thing to do. But when the most difficult lessons arise, he teaches them by example. He is a brave man, a leader, whose words and actions reinforce each other. His children look up to him. That is how it should be.

To Kill a Mockingbird predates ratings, but it would probably earn a PG rating today for the use of a racial epithet and thematic material.

The One Who Will Not Give Up

In stark contrast to the film dads who don’t know what to do when their kids get into trouble, or are too out of touch to even know that trouble is brewing, some film dads get it right. No matter how hard the task, these dads never give up. Like the cavalry over the hill, they will do whatever it takes to ride to the rescue. The most beautiful recent example comes from Pixar in the form of a fish named Marlin, and his son, Nemo.

As Finding Nemo begins, we see that Nemo is a rebellious little fish. Warned by his father to avoid humans, Nemo (like so many of us) decides to disobey and put one little fin over the line. The next thing he knows, Nemo is trapped, hauled off to a dentist’s office where he will be the latest colorful addition to a saltwater aquarium. Nemo once was free, but his disobedience has made him captive.

Marlin, devastated at the loss of his son, is determined to rescue him. Joined by a forgetful angelfish named Dory, Marlin braves hungry sharks, overcomes a stealthy fish with sharp teeth that nearly lures him to his death, and swims through a perilous jellyfish forest. Even though Marlin would not be considered the swashbuckling type, when his son is in danger, he does everything in his power to bring him home.

As Nemo languishes in the tank, a friendly pelican lands on the window sill. When the pelican discovers Nemo’s name, he tells Nemo about his father’s fearless fight to rescue him. He says that Nemo’s father is probably out in the harbor right now, coming for him. Believing in his father’s perseverance is all that Nemo needs to redouble his own courage. G-rated, Finding Nemo demonstrates that a father’s love overcomes all obstacles.

A Wiser Choice

Fathers need to break free from the damaging images that many Hollywood films push, identifying men as immature dolts, or hapless losers. An easy answer might seem to be to quit watching television and movies – that way you can avoid the negative stereotyping. But trying to escape the influence of film in this visually-oriented culture is nearly impossible, and the fact is that the vast majority of Americans watch movies as a form of entertainment. But when it comes to selection, we need to vote for what we want with our wallets.

By selecting films and shows (such as The Andy Griffith Show, for example) that contain strong and moral father figures, we can reinforce the idea that fatherhood is valuable, needed, and good. Being a good father is not something to avoid, it is a target at which to aim. These films are excellent examples of aspects of fatherhood that are worthy of emulation. Best of all, after the film, they can serve as discussion starters about the virtues of fatherhood that can lead to opening God’s word. There, fathers (and fathers-to-be) can discover all of the lessons that were attractive to them in these films – being a good husband, a sacrificing father, a defender, a leader, and a wise guide back to the right path – are validated by God, who, as our Heavenly Father, embodies all these traits, and so much more. ExileStreet

copyright 2008 Marc T. Newman

Marc T. Newman, Ph.D. is founder of and is an associate professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to

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