Fatherhood on Film

2 Classic Movies Highlight Paternal Care and Concern

A biological father and spiritual father offer good guidance in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘On the Waterfront.’
A biological father and spiritual father offer good guidance in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘On the Waterfront.’ (photo: Universal Pictures and Sony Pictures)

Fathers often take a beating in popular culture, especially as they are depicted in television and films. If they even exist in the postmodern “family” constructs, they are usually there as comic foils or authoritarians on the receiving end of wisdom being dispensed by their preteen son or daughter. Current portrayals of fathers as layered, complex and three-dimensional men can be found — but viewers must look hard.

Amid my quest to find portrayals of fatherhood in film (I even dove into the television pool), I unearthed several top-10 lists of fathers in movies. I found most of these lists wanting, as they included “fathers” like Don Corleone and Darth Vader. Several lists included Chevy Chase’s dad character in those Vacation movies. At least those films are intended to be outlandish.

It became clear that I was not going to find a top-10 list of great fatherhood portrayals without really stretching the envelope of credulity, so I looked a little deeper into film history and came up with two movies — one that was on almost all the other lists and one that is only on my list. 


To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book: The essence of the small-town South in the middle part of the last century permeates every page — including all the ugliness of the Jim Crow legacy. It also celebrates hope in the shape of the innocence of the children in the story who are eased out of their bubble by the ultimate father figure into the harsher, not-so-innocent realities of their times. 

Turning a great book into a great movie is no small task. And with literary source material like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, it is even more daunting. Some of the main themes could have easily found themselves on the cutting-room floor. They did not. The book and the film remain inextricably linked, and the result is one of the most powerful and universally admired portrayals of what a great father looks like: Atticus Finch. The story, both in the film and the book, may be told through the eyes of a child, but like in all strong families that resemble the model of the Holy Family, the father is the hub that holds the wheel together. 

Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning and Oscar-worthy (those are not always the same thing) performance is a revelation. His Atticus Finch is a single dad, a man of integrity and quiet strength. It is an unconventional family. Atticus is a widower. He allows his two children more freedom than people around town believe is appropriate, and when he defends a Black man accused of rape, Atticus stands alone.

The children under his care — Scout, her brother and their visiting cousin — are pulled into the uglier side of life. It is a time when a child would never be in more need of a solid, stable and loving father. Like St. Joseph, Atticus Finch is that quiet but solid father who is always available to his children. 

It is a beautiful and, sadly, underrepresented image of what true fatherhood is supposed to be. 

Atticus is always there when his children need him, but this does not mean he can or even desires to protect them from all the sadness the world has to offer. Keeping with the etymology of his first name, Atticus takes a Socratic approach when it comes to instructing his children. Instead of a classroom, it is a kitchen table; instead of a lecture, it is wise counsel as he gives his children room to try and figure things out for themselves. But he never leaves them to their own devices. He is the ultimate guard rail of life, something to which any man called “father” should aspire.


On the Waterfront

The other film is about a father of a different kind: Karl Malden’s Oscar-worthy (he did not win) performance as rough, tough and volatile Father Pete Barry in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. If not the best, it certainly is one of the best portrayals of a priest in cinema. Based on the life of a real dockside priest, Malden’s Father Barry is the father figure to East Coast longshoremen who are abused by a corrupt system.

He suffers a lot of abuse himself and is denigrated for being a celibate man. One of this film’s many iconic scenes shows Father Barry standing over the body of a longshoreman down in the hold of a ship while the men above mock and revile him. It brings to mind the Via Dolorosa

Maybe I am showing my age, but Father Barry reminds me of some of the priests I grew up around. They were rough around the edges at times, but their status as “fathers” was as defined and understood as that of my own father. The most iconic scene in On the Waterfront, and the one that garners the most attention, is the famous cab ride that features two heavyweight actors going toe to toe. Marlon Brando is doing his best Brando as younger brother Terry Malloy to Rod Steiger’s Charley “the Gent” Malloy. Things have turned deadly in the plot line as Charley’s wayward ways have put both brothers in mortal danger.

It is a powerful scene, but to me — and this may be a function of being born into mid-20th-century Catholicism — the greatest scene in this film is when Brando’s character must confess to the girl he loves (portrayed by Eva Marie Saint) that he had a role in her brother’s death. It is all because of the strident counsel of Malden’s Father Barry that Brando’s Terry Mallow tells love interest Edie Doyle the truth. The scene is brilliantly directed. Viewers do not hear a single word that transpires between the man and woman. It is all seen through the point of view of the priest. He watches from afar as his counsel is put into action. From the body language, it is plain to see things do not go well, as Edie tears herself away from Terry, obviously overwhelmed by what she has heard.

The camera focuses on Father Barry. He knows he told Terry to do the right thing, but the pain and suffering it has caused to both parties is like a knife in Father Barry’s heart. What “real” father worth his salt has not had a hard-truth moment with one or more of his own children? 

As measured and strong as Atticus Finch is, Father Barry is extroverted and strident. They are two sides of the same coin. The need for fathers to be both wise counselors and dispensers of tough love is elemental. These two great films embody the best of what being a father is all about. 

Robert Brennan writes from Los Angeles.