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. –
In the first part of this series I looked at the father figure and its relationship to the ‘soldier-son’ in the combat film; but can these ideas be seen in other genres too, such as the historical epic?
In its golden age of the 1950s-60s, epics set in the Greco-Roman world often featured father figures giving advice to the protagonists, but the focus was less the father-son relationship and far more on the family. Ben-Hur, The Robe, Quo Vadis and Spartacus repeat the motif of the hero turning their back on Rome in favour of settling down with a (usually Christian) slave girl. However, the act of deserting Rome was symbolic, as in most cases the message in these films is that the evil, tyrannical Roman empire was an allegory for the recently defeated Nazis/Japanese or perhaps the Cold War threat of the Soviet Union. When the hero chooses the family and Christianity over the Roman Empire, he makes an inspiring moral decision to adopt American values over those of its enemies.
This motif returns in three post-9/11 Roman epics where absent fathers influence the actions of their soldier-sons. In King Arthur, Arthur (Clive Owen) has a split allegiance between his Roman father and Celtic mother; although both have died before the story takes place and we only see his mother in flashback. Arthur acts as a father to his men, many of whom desire to become fathers themselves. Centurion and The Eagle both concern the legendary disappearance of the Ninth Legion in ancient Britain. The former follows the survivors of the massacred legion, including Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) who often refers to his father’s teachings while performing his duties. The Eagle follows the son (Channing Tatum) of a soldier in the Ninth Legion as he attempts to reclaim his father’s honour by returning the legion’s eagle standard to Roman hands. In all three films the protagonists go on quests north into Scotland and during their mission they learn of Rome’s corruption and begin to sympathise with the natives. When they return, they – as with the 1950s epics – turn their backs on Rome and settle in Britain.
This act could be read allegorically, as while in the epics of the 1950s-60s it was seen as a rejection of tyranny in favour of American values, here it could be a rejection of contemporary American imperialism. While most of the epics of the 1950s-60s focus on action happening in Rome itself, Centurion, The Eagle and King Arthur are all set in a Roman province (Britain) and all feature protagonists who (initially) participate in occupying a less developed country – an interesting evolution of the genre that appeared after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan…
By contrast, three films based on Greek mythology (infamous for its father/son conflicts!) appear to have the reverse structure of the recent Roman epics: the hero Perseus (Sam Worthington) in Clash of the Titans (and its sequel Wrath of the Titans) and Theseus (Henry Cavill) in Immortals are seemingly abandoned by their divine father, Zeus (Liam Neeson/Luke Evans, respectively), and are raised by a mortal surrogate in their place. When these are seemingly killed, the heroes are left completely fatherless as Zeus refuses to help his sons (and in Clash Perseus openly rejects the Gods for killing his surrogate father). However, through their actions both sons win the affection of their fathers (who then helpfully come to their aid when fighting escaped titans) and both ultimately become fathers themselves.
A similar idea appears in Oliver Stone’s Alexander. In the film, Alexander’s (Colin Farrell) close childhood relationship to his mother (Angelina Jolie) distances him from his father (Val Kilmer), who is then killed when Alexander is only 19. During his campaigns he kills his surrogate fathers (Parmenion and Cleitus) and becomes increasingly paranoid, drunk and violent in scenes evocative of the Vietnam War film (Stone also directed Platoon). However, once Alexander reaches the furthest point of his empire, acknowledges his own mortality and the lives of his men – regaining his morality – his father appears as a vision among the cheering crowds and nods his approval.
Not all fathers are absent or as demanding of their sons. The film that re-launched the ancient historical epic in 2000, Gladiator, contains a multitude of complex fatherly relations. Despite failings along the way, the character of Maximus (Russell Crowe) ultimately becomes the ideal father figure; evoking the combat films that were released around the same time. Since then, aspects of Maximus’ character have resurfaced in the many shapes of Hector (Eric Bana) in Troy and Leonidas (Gerard Butler) in 300. These three characters all fight against tyrannical powers to defend their homes, wives and young sons; although they all die, they become moral exemplars that remind us of what a father figure, traditionally, should be – something that may suggest why these three films proved some of the most successful of recent ancient historical epics at the US box office?
Tradition often associates the father figure with the patriarchal institutions of military, government, and law: to that, we could also add faith. Describing a higher power or spiritual being, especially in monotheistic religions, as a ‘Father’ has been used to assert male dominance in many societies throughout history. While religious symbolism is constantly evoked in films, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ sought to bring this particular iteration of the father/son relationship to the big screen in a graphically brutal style. However, through most of the film the Father – God – is seemingly absent. He does not appear as a vision, as Satan does, nor does he speak. By contrast the emotive heart of the film is found in the mother, as Mary (Maia Morgenstern) follows her son, Jesus (Jim Caviezel), through his ordeal along the Stations of the Cross. Some audiences could understandably spend most of the film questioning God/the Father’s existence, as he appears to have abandoned his son to suffering.
There may, though, be another interpretation. The Passion of the Christ was released in early 2004, less than two and a half years since 9/11, America was becoming increasingly bogged down in two foreign wars (the legality and morality of which was in doubt) and the conservative, born-again President George W. Bush and his Republican government was being challenged in an election later that year. Gibson’s highly conservative, Catholic film portrayed Jesus’s ability to keep his faith in the Father despite a wave of suffering and torment, while the film’s cathartic coda reveals that the father did not desert the son as Jesus rises from his tomb. For those Americans who saw themselves, their country, and/or their religion as under attack – namely the conservative, Christian, Right – The Passion of the Christ was a timely reminder that their Father – whether God or country – would not desert them.
This symbolism does not end here, however. Absent fathers and suffering sons who must prove themselves to those fathers has become a major motif in another genre in post-9/11 cinema: the superhero film. In the final installment of this series of articles, I will look at the modern equivalent to the ancient Greek myths, and search for the father figure in the worlds of Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man and more…
Who are your favourite father figures in historical epics? What is the greatest father/son or daughter tale in cinema? Let us know below…