Here’s looking at you, Dad

Sunday, 20 June 2004 — 10:27pm | Casablanca, Film, Star Wars

Virtually all character dynamics in the movies, it can be said, are covered to one extent or another in Casablanca, which Robert McKee (screenwriting instructor, author of Story and butt of many a joke in Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay to Adaptation) rightly acknowledges as being the paragon of all cinema as far as writing is concerned. You have the more obvious themes of love lost, forbidden and rediscovered between Rick and Ilsa, the love inspired by romantic heroism in the case of Victor Laszlo, and a resulting triangle that is so prototypical as to be Pythagorean; these are constantly emulated, though often unconsciously, and regularly with only the merest trace of the same emotional complexity.

Yet while Casablanca is among movies the undisputed king of the portrayal of love in its romantic forms, often overlooked are its more understated pairings, and how they are seen time and again in even the best of the films in the decades that followed. Take no less than Raiders of the Lost Ark, for instance, and notice René Belloq’s subservience to the Nazis, one that he independently but weakly denies: “All in good time,” he replies, when Indiana Jones asks him what will become of his prize upon delivery to the Fuhrer. Belloq is a striking villain, but we trace him back to that other allegory of occupied France, Captain Renault. Louis, of course, has quite a different fate than Indy’s archaelogical rival. Between him and Rick, we see “the beginning of a beautiful friendship” in a manner where both shirk their supposed allegiances or lack thereof, certainly at their own peril, but with consolation in each other. The great conflicted partnerships follow a similar pattern, be it T.E. Lawrence and Sherif Ali, Blondie and Tuco, or heck, even Shrek and Donkey.

This is not to say that all films are necessarily Casablanca‘s sons and daughters – such a claim, at least as it would pertain to conscious intent or chronological order of production, would be a stretch – but try and name one other piece that brings together so many degrees of character interaction.

That said, the films that most emphasize the relationships not found in Casablanca and do it well are the ones that we recognize as being similarly exceptional in their own right. Think, here, of the unrequited charity of friendship Melanie offers Scarlett, or to use a recent example, the unspoken bond between Bob and Charlotte in Lost In Translation that should make one consider yet again the cleverness of its title. But perhaps the most prominent absence in the Bogart classic is the relationship between father and son, a staple of world mythology both ancient and contemporary.

That brings me to what I would like to examine today: the films that model the many aspects of the father-son relationship, much in the way that Casablanca tackles pretty much everything else.

I speculate that a lot of people, when asked to name the definitive movie about fathers and sons, will quite justifiably make a very strong case in favour of The Empire Strikes Back. Loath as I am to divide a sweeping congruous saga into its parts when it is greater than the proverbial sum, I would actually point to Return of the Jedi.

If we look at dramatic narratives as driven not by individual characters, but instead the tangled bonds between them, the final redemption of Anakin Skywalker is an event of monumental literary consideration. Star Wars is, on a basic level, a tale about slavery. In The Phantom Menace, we see Anakin enslaved in a literal sense, though it is not altogether that uncomfortable nor physically demanding so much as it is he is treated as an asset to buy and sell, and a matter of pride in the eyes of his owner. He is freed under the promise of high adventure across the stars, but we see in Attack of the Clones that he becomes a Jedi only to be, in his eyes, enslaved to a code of conduct that forces a lid onto his rampant emotions and severs his forbidden attachments, albeit finally in vain. Although there is that chasm of ambiguity to be filled next May with the release of Episode III, we are aware of his fate: somehow, in his efforts to be the free spirit he is at heart, he winds up under the most tragic enslavement of all: he finds his very spirit dominated by the Emperor and moreover, the Dark Side of the Force.

So what we see is a cyclical process whereby at every turn, Anakin’s freedom from one form of slavery only leads to another even greater. Star Wars, then, revolves around the search for a force (pardon the pun) powerful enough to trump the seemingly irrevocable corruption of the Dark Side. The key decision point is in that moment in the Death Star Throne Room when Vader looks back and forth between his master and his son, the former with lightning shooting out his fingers, the latter crying for mercy. The pleas for paternal intervention ultimately win out, and the bond between father and child trumps that which has held so long, the connection between master and apprentice. It is a poetic turn of events, given how Anakin himself never knew a father, but only one master after another.

It is also ironic, considering that the very fact that Luke even knows the identity of the man-machine behind the mask is due to the latter’s voluntary revelation of the facts in the bowels of Cloud City at the end of Empire. Vader chooses to divulge the information of his fatherhood, by all appearances to try and convince Luke that it is his destiny to fall to the Dark Side; he acts as an agent of the Dark Side, beckoning for the continuation of the cycle of slavery. At the end of all things, Luke’s knowledge of the truth is what draws the saga to its fitting conclusion.

Luke’s journey through Jedi is itself notable. After the scenes on Dagobah where his two mentors verify Vader’s claim, he accepts the truth, but never does he accept that his father is at heart an evil man. It can be argued that in screenwriting terms, the strongest scene in the entire saga is Luke and Vader talking on the plank where an Imperial Walker is docked, the former having just surrendered himself; that is a whole other discussion, but notice what happens. “So, you have accepted the truth,” says Vader, when his son calls him Father. Luke’s reply speaks volumes: “I’ve accepted the truth that you were once Anakin Skywalker, my father.” And it is that knowledge that drives Luke to put everything on the line just to prove that somewhere in that mechanized suit, humanity remains. In doing so he defies the word of everyone before him, every assertion that upon a fall to the Dark Side, there is no redemption.

The Empire Strikes Back is an incredible film on all counts, but its role in the development of the father-son connection is minimal in comparison. Sure, you have the most thoroughly spoofed scene in the movies, the revelation that is now such a part of the cultural consciousness at large that it is known to those who have never even had the pleasure of seeing a Star Wars instalment. You have Vader’s quest in that movie’s own plot arc, the obsessive hunt for the boy who sent his TIE Fighter spinning out of control. Still, it is Return of the Jedi that takes this setup and runs with it, and features the concept of fatherhood as a focal point with respect to both the plot and the final stage of development of the overarching themes in that galaxy far, far away.

That is why Return of the Jedi is as definitive a father-son film as one can find, one that clings to the mythic tradition unlike any other film. Of course, it is hardly lonely at the summit of its subgenre. The Godfather is a piece to consider, though it is more about the sons themselves than their relationship to Don Corleone: Sonny as the devoted son, stopped short by a few hundred bullets, give or take; Tom, the good son, but subtly removed and restrained by his status as an adopted child; Michael, the son who initially abandons his father’s legacy the most, only to become its inheritor; and Fredo… well, the less said about Fredo, the better. Road To Perdition is more overtly about fatherhood, focusing on the ideas of neglect, disapproval, sibling rivalry, and the following of paternal footsteps. The two Henry Joneses in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade are a more comical pair, but no less serious about fatherly neglect and idolatry. One hopes to see more of the strained, disapproving relationship between Denethor and Faramir in the Extended Edition of The Return of the King; the trinity of the Steward of Gondor and his two sons is a literary highlight insofar as fathers and sons are concerned, and the added scenes in Osgiliath in the Extended The Two Towers was already a valuable addition.

If my desert-island selection of father-son films were limited to two, though, count on the second as being Finding Nemo. One of the many reasons Nemo is indisputably the best animated film in recent years is the complexity of its character dynamics, which one will notice are outside Casablanca territory as often as possible. This is the definitive movie that we see told from the unblinking eyes of the father, and there is no other piece that expresses anywhere near the same level of fatherly devotion. The way Marlin braves underwater minefields, sharks in denial, the docks of Sydney, and the darkest depths of the ocean floor, all in the name of an impossible rescue, is one of the most compelling adventures in recent cinema. Look at the way he tries to escape the highly symbolic belly of the whale, hurling himself at the barrier of baleen, with nothing more on his mind than a determination that no matter what the obstacles, he must tell his son that a hundred and fifty is young for a sea turtle. As overprotective as he is, Marlin is the greatest dad in any movie, period.

I’d like to move on to legendary movie moms while I’m on a roll, but the essay on Almost Famous will have to wait until next May. Go read Sophocles or Freud or something. Oh, and Happy Father’s Day.

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