From Ancient Greece to Star Wars, the Bible to Breaking Bad, throughout history the father figure has been a major feature in dramatic storytelling. This is especially evident in film, but in post-9/11 American cinema the father figure has often become notable by his absence. In this three part series I look at how the role of the father figure in American film has evolved in the 21st century across three genres: the combat film, the historical epic and the superhero film. For each, I ask: O Father, Where Art Thou?
— NB: This article contains numerous spoilers. —
The father figure has fascinated philosophers, psychologists, and storytellers for generations. While fathers could often be violent, as in the Greek myth of Zeus, Kronos and Uranus, they were traditionally deemed the head of the family in patriarchal societies and came to symbolise a teacher, a guide, a protector and provider for the family unit. As societies developed, these features became linked to social institutions: the military, the government, the law; and American society was no different. At times of war nations often look to these institutions for support, guidance and protection, and these feelings became embodied in fatherly roles in combat films – a subgenre of the war film involving depictions of combat.
This became particularly evident in the 1940s. Characters such as John Wayne’s Sergeant Stryker in The Sands of Iwo Jima would command the respect of the young recruits and guide them through the conflict, not only imparting often life-saving advice but also ensuring they maintain a sense of morality despite the bloody carnage surrounding them. Although such father figures could often die during the course of the film, the suggestion was that the lessons handed down between the generations would be continued. This was symbolic, as America saw its opposition to fascism and imperialism in WWII as morally justified, with nation and state joined in solidarity. Not only did the father figure symbolise America intervention positively, but the exemplary actions and teachings he imparted to the soldier-sons led them from adolescence into manhood.
During the 1950s and 1960s the counter-culture – or ‘youth’ – movement revealed a generation rebelling against the patriarchal institutions; think Marlon Brandon in The Wild One and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, angry young men who often seemed to lack reason or direction other than desiring escape from their old-fashioned fathers. However, as the 1960s progressed into the 1970s, growing civil unrest and a descent into the quagmire of Vietnam changed this. Protest movements, student killings at Kent State, assassinations, Watergate, and the spectral presence of the Vietnam War in which America’s sons were unwillingly drafted into a violent conflict were streamed into the public consciousness by constant media coverage. Worse still, US sons seemed to lose their morality and committed terrible acts such as the My Lai massacre, and veterans often returned home only to be abandoned by the country they fought for. The so-called ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ reflected this disjuncture between nation and state, father from children.
Numerous films reflected this: horror films, for example, began to focus on children and mothers while fathers became absent, dangerous, or the objects of retaliatory violence in The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. At first the combat film stayed away from directly depicting the Vietnam War as those wounds had yet to heal, but by the late 1970s and 1980s the conflict was being covered by numerous filmmakers. Lynda Boose, a Professor at Dartmouth College, has argued how in these films: “Figures of authoritative, compassionate leadership … are simply gone, their absence narrated into post-Vietnam movies as either the father’s betrayal of the son or the son’s quest to revalidate the father or both.”
The absent father embodied veterans’ neglect by the patriarchal institutions of military and government, and without the guidance of the father the soldier-sons in these films were weakened. They became victims of the enemy’s tactics, traumatised by their experiences, and resorted to immoral and barbaric behaviour. Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and Casualties of War reflect this; morality and the reason for fighting almost as absent as the father figure. Boose also states that: “In these films the unresolvability of the father is frequently represented through an implicit accusation of him that is simultaneous with an attempted exoneration, sometimes further complicated – as in Apocalypse Now and Platoon – by competition between several sites of vacated paternal authority within a narrative that impels the son to kill the father.” In Platoon, the young Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) searches desperately for a father (and notably writes home to his grandmother, not his father), but instead finds his projected, moral father of Elias (Willem Defoe) murdered by the demonic father figure of Barnes (Tom Berenger), who is in turn murdered by Taylor in an angry, almost mythical, rejection of the father in return for his desertion.
However, in the early 1990s President Bush Sr. announced that America had ‘kicked the Vietnam Syndrome’ after the Berlin Wall fell and Operation Desert Shield/Storm reaffirmed America’s technological superiority in war. Coupled to the fiftieth anniversary of WWII – the ‘Good War’ – combat films produced during the 1990s began to reflect a sense of reformed unity between the nation and its patriarchal institutions: and as such, the father figure returned.
The greatest example of this is Tom Hanks’ Capt. Miller in Saving Private Ryan. After Private Ryan’s brothers are killed, the US military sends Miller, a father (who is also a school teacher) to save a son and return him to his mother. Along the way his soldier-sons almost execute a captured German soldier, but Miller ensures they embody a respectable US morality and let the prisoner go. Ultimately, Miller’s sacrifice saves Ryan, who in turn becomes not only a father himself, but a grandfather too. Similar father figures include Sam Shepherd in Black Hawk Down, Gene Hackman in Behind Enemy Lines; and even the Vietnam War film finds a father figure in Mel Gibson’s Lt. Col. Moore in We Were Soldiers. In each case US soldier-sons retain their morality despite the brutality of war, and often fight for humanitarian causes (Black Hawk Down, Tears of the Sun). At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the prodigal father had returned.
Even the events of 9/11 could not harm that; indeed, many looked to the government and military to protect the nation from future attacks and were largely united in support for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the subsequent exposure of prisoner abuse in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, non-existent WMD or al Qaeda links in Iraq, and the increasing numbers of US casualties at the hands of low-tech weaponry exhumed the ghosts of Vietnam: as did the combat film. America appeared to have lost its sense of morality, and elements of the US public lost faith in the government and military.
Although most films dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan revolve around ‘coming home’ narratives, they also feature scenes of combat or atrocities committed by young US troops who lack a clear father-figure in their unit or among their superiors. This motif can be seen in Redacted, Battle for Haditha, and Stop-Loss, while In the Valley of Elah deals with a (literal) father who is also an ex-military policeman (doubling the patriarchal institutions of military and law) attempting to solve his son’s murder after he returned from Iraq and was killed by his comrades. Even the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker lacks a clear father figure for its protagonist, James (Jeremy Renner), who in turns rejects being a father-figure for either the Iraqi boy Beckham or his own child in America, preferring to return to Iraq than fulfil his domestic role.
In short, the Iraq War combat film has repeated elements of the Vietnam War film, and the loss of faith in the US government and military was reflected in the absence of the father figure – with devastating consequences for the soldier-sons. But what of films depicting combat in earlier wars? Although Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds takes the role of the father figure, he ultimately exhibits little intelligence, wisdom or protection for his men: possibly also evoking the southern-states cowboy image of George W. Bush. While Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima finds a father figure in the Japanese military, the US companion piece Flags of Our Fathers similarly depicts largely fatherless soldiers in combat who return to be used as propaganda by the government and military who show little understanding of their traumatising experiences.
But are these the only reasons for the absent father? what if we go deeper into history, right back to a time of Romans and barbarians, of gods and monsters? Where is the post-9/11 father figure in the historical epic? Find out in Part 2…
Sources: Boose, Lynda. “Techno-Muscularity and the “Boy Eternal”: From the Quagmire to the Gulf” in (ed.) J. David Slocum Hollywood and War: The Film Reader. New York, Routledge, 2006. 275-286.
Weber, Cynthia. Imagining America at War: Morality, Politics, and Film. London and New York; Routledge, 2006.
Basinger, Jeanine. The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre. New York; Columbia University Press, 1986.
Who are your favourite father figures in combat films? What is the greatest father/son or daughter tale in cinema? Let us know below…