WARNING: This article contains Spoilers for ‘The Godfather’.
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather changed the gangster-movie genre forever with its depiction of gangsters grappling with complex existential dilemmas, rather than as one-dimensional, lowlife hoodlums.
Previously, all such gangster stories had been told from an outsider’s point of view, and the gangsters themselves were seldom portrayed sympathetically. The Godfather was also the first movie to show a Mafia organisation from the inside. Its sprawling portrait of the Corleone family and their travails acquires the grandeur and scope of an ancient Greek tragedy, in which honour, duty, and loyalty to family are seen as the characters’ main motivating forces, rather than criminal intent.
The Godfather is based on a best-selling novel of the same name by Italian-American author Mario Puzo, which was published in 1969. Within a year, Paramount Pictures had commissioned Puzo to write the screenplay.
A successful screenwriter himself, Coppola, who had been hired as the director, had firm ideas of his own about how the script should be written, and he and Puzo worked together to complete the final draft. Coppola’s insight was to see that the essence of the story, and the focus of the movie, should be the personal transition of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) from respectable, law-abiding young man and decorated war hero to eventual head of a crime family, when he takes over from the Godfather, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). Coppola also saw the story as a metaphor for American free-market capitalism. The Corleones aspire to the American Dream and fight to establish their place in the world. Few movies have focused quite so starkly on the moral contradictions involved in this pursuit.
Justice & Loyalty
The movie opens with the wedding celebration of Don Corleone’s daughter, Connie (Talia Shire), at which the undertaker Bonasera, a family associate, seeks a private audience with Don Corleone. Bonasera asks the Godfather’s help in avenging the beating and rape of his daughter by men who escaped justice through being wealthy and well connected. “I believe in America,” Bonasera says: “America has made my fortune. And I raised my daughter in the American fashion.” He has bought into the American Dream, yet America has betrayed him.
To Don Corleone, then, falls the task of getting justice for Bonasera and his daughter outside of the law. It is no accident that the movie begins at a family gathering. The Corleones are presented as a family that must remain close-knit in order to survive in the world. Loyalty is everything. Later in the movie, Michael warns his brother Fredo, “Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.” Domestic exchanges such as this are central to this portrayal of the Corleone family. There are, in fact, many more scenes set around the dinner table than there are shoot-outs. The men describe what they do as business, which they keep strictly separate from family. “This is business, not personal,” they insist. They see themselves simply as men doing their job.
Coppola is careful to avoid showing the victims of the family’s criminal enterprises—the drug addicts, prostitutes, and ruined families. The only victims of the Corleones’ brutality that the viewer sees are the members of rival gangs who posed a threat. And so the viewer sees the Corleones as they see themselves, as a quasi-respectable family fighting to maintain supremacy in a dangerous world, rather than as a bunch of thugs.
An Acclaimed Cast
Most telling of all are the remarkable performances from the universally superb cast. Marlon Brando gives an iconic performance as Don Corleone. At the time of the movie’s release, there were critics who felt his rasping delivery was affected, but others maintained that it captured perfectly a man wearied by power and its obligations. Puzo told Brando that he was “the only actor who can play the Godfather.” Studio executives were initially wary of the actor’s disruptive reputation and box-office credibility, but he won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance.
Although Brando supplies the face of the movie, it is Al Pacino’s Michael who carries the story. At the start, he is a college graduate, engaged to a beautiful non-Italian girl, Kay, played by Diane Keaton. He appears to have every hope of living a crime-free life, of fulfilling the American Dream. Pacino, then a little-known actor, received an Oscar nomination for Actor in a Supporting Role.
Family & Destiny
Michael is drawn inexorably into the gangster world of the Corleone family, finally pledging by his father’s hospital bed, “I’ll take care of you now. I’m with you now. I’m with you.” When his brother Sonny (James Caan) is gunned down, Michael becomes the new heir apparent.
His descent from a bright hope is the movie’s central tragedy, yet we understand how strongly he feels that he has no choice. Don Corleone had wanted Michael to become a senator or a governor, but the movie hints that such respectability will always be out of reach of their family. They may have senators in their pockets but, in public, the senators will always shun them.
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: Director
Coppola was born in 1939 to a Detroit family of Italian descent. His father Carmine was a composer who would work on the scores of The Godfather: Part II and Apocalypse Now. In his early twenties, Francis enrolled in the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) film school, and was soon writing screenplays for Hollywood.
He began making movies during the New Hollywood movement, also referred to as the American New Wave, which aimed to tackle new subjects using different styles. The Godfather, one of the highest grossing movies in history, was the first major movie he directed, and he cemented his reputation with a string of hits throughout the 1970s. Considered one of America’s most energetic, if erratic, filmmakers, his later movies have not quite matched his early successes.