What to say about The Godfather that hasn’t already been said? No matter what I write, it will never do this film any justice. There is just so much going on in this movie that it’s hard to put it all in to words. It’s just something that one needs to witness for one’s self. Multiple times, just to take it all in.
Today we know Francis Ford Coppola as a visionary director for his hits Apocalypse Now, The Outsiders, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but in the early 70’s he didn’t quite have the street cred he does now. Paramount Pictures next big project was adapting Mario Puzo‘s best-selling novel for the big screen. Coppola was definitely not the studio’s first choice for the project. Italian director Sergio Leone was their top pick, but he declined and went on to make his own gangster film, Once Upon a Time in America (which I’ve never actually seen yet). Peter Bogdanovich was also approached, but declined as well. So god only knows how many people declined first. Francis Ford Coppola was finally offered the job and he almost declined as well. He did not initially want to direct the film because “he feared it would glorify the Mafia and violence and thus reflect poorly on his Sicilian and Italian heritage.” But thankfully that never happened and we got one of the greatest films ever put to celluloid.
That being said, it wasn’t smooth sailing for Coppola going into production. The head of Paramount was unhappy with his choice for the father of the family, and swore that Marlon Brando, “will never appear in this motion picture”. Well. that guy was an idiot and Coppola cast Brando anyway. The studio was constantly threatening to fire Coppola. Apparently, assistant director, Steve Kestner even tried to get Coppola fired by sending out dailies and saying there was no way to edit the film properly with what he was filming. He even fought to keep it a period piece and to keep the logo from the novel. In all honesty, this project was doomed from the start. Yet, Coppola persevered.
“The Godfather was a very unappreciated movie when we were making it. They were very unhappy with it. They didn’t like the cast. They didn’t like the way I was shooting it. I was always on the verge of getting fired. So it was an extremely nightmarish experience. I had two little kids, and the third one was born during that. We lived in a little apartment, and I was basically frightened that they didn’t like it. They had as much as said that, so when it was all over I wasn’t at all confident that it was going to be successful, and that I’d ever get another job.” – Francis Ford Coppola
Oversimplification of the Whole Movie
The Godfather is not your typical gangster film, it’s a small story set in a bigger world. Its perspective is told entirely within this closed world and that’s why we sympathize with these essentially evil characters. They aren’t out robbing random people or capping peoples knees due to gambling debts owed. It’s all about the family, it’s business and how to keep up with the times that were slowly changing. Keeping the story on this family level is its good luck charm. You want to get to know these character better and see them succeed. Brando’sperformance as Don Vito Corleone, makes you sympathize with the patriarch of this Mafia family. He know his sons well, and has plans for each of them. Hothead Sonny (James Caan) was the heir apparent to the family business. Middle child, Fredo (John Cazale) was well, Fredo. But, the youngest, Michael (Al Pacino), a WWII vet who just returned home, he had bigger plans for him, “Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone, something.” Michael did his best growing up to stay out of the family business. And let’s not forget Tom (Robert Duvall), Vito’s adopted son, family lawyer and consigliere. He’s the “outsider” of the family and voice of reason.
It is the day of Vito’s daughter, Connie’s (Talia Shire), wedding where we first get a glimpse into the family’s inner workings. In Sicilian tradition, on this day, the Don must grant any reasonable request asked of him. Holding court in his darkened study, the initial request asked of the Don is from a humble man named Bonesera. His request is for revenge on the men who raped his daughter. This scene alone is worth the price of admission to the film. It sets the tone of the movie instantly. The Don is not a man to be trifled with and he looks out for those who do good by him. Then we cut to the actual wedding reception. Where we get to meet “the family”. This introduction to everyone is so brilliantly done. Coppola even let the reception play out naturally and filmed it guerilla-style, adding a sense of reality to it, quite similar to the wedding in The Deer Hunter.
During the course of the movie, we see Michael become more involved in the family business due to an attempted hit on Vito by the Tattaglia crime family. Michael’s years of schooling and levelheadedness allows him to stop a second attempt on his father’s life forcing him to step up in a way he never would have expected. The scene of Michael meeting with Sollozzo and police captain McCluskey was filmed early on to solidify Al Pacino’s role in the film. And oh what a scene it is.
What The Godfather Means to Us
Around 18 years ago while at university, I remember making the sensible decision to spend some of my student loan and purchase the Godfather Trilogy on DVD. I had heard so much hype, mainly concerning part II, with many classing it as the greatest film ever made. I decided to dive in and essentially get the first part out of the way so I could get to the really good stuff.
A few hours later and I was completely blown away. I went on to finish the trilogy but for me, the other films didn’t surpass the original. I went out and bought every Pacino film I could get my hands on and still, nothing surpassed it. In fact, very few films have done so since. Pacino’s performance got under my skin and as I watched his eyes flicker uncontrollably during the cafe scene, I knew I was experiencing something very special indeed. Add to that Marlon Brando in his prime and the iconic music and it’s clear to me that it had a massive influence on my passion for film going forward. A classic in every sense of the word.
The Godfather was one of the only films I put off watching out of pure intimidation because of its reputation as one of, if not the greatest film of all time. I was scared to watch it because I didn’t want to be the guy who didn’t like it. It’s bad enough going thru life being one of the only kids who wasn’t into Star Wars but being the guy who didn’t like The Godfather? Blasphemous. So I put it off, and put it off, and on my shelf it sat for years upon years. Until the day I mustered up the courage to finally sit down and tackle it and it didn’t disappoint.
Sometimes when you watch an older movie, you have to judge it on different grading scale than you normally would. Films evolve and you have to view them within the context in which they were made. What was considered “extremely violent” for the 70s is laughable now. What was sprawling then is the norm now. So I was afraid I was going to have to make certain concessions in order to enjoy it, but thankfully that wasn’t the case. It has earned its reputation and then some. The performances are among the best of all time, the writing is impeccable, and the direction and cinematography are legendary. It’s a perfect film and is a shining example of why you should never be afraid of older art.
I don’t want to rehash every scene of the entire film. Because there are way too many great ones to discuss. Francis Ford Coppola works best under pressure. This and Apocalypse Now are great example of this. His best films are built on the duress of his actors and the situations the filmmaker puts them and himself into. So do yourself a favor, if you haven’t ever seen this film, make that change immediately in your life. You won’t regret it.
Through all the struggles and second guessing from the studio, the film was finally released with critical praise. It even went on to be nominated for nine Academy Awards (including 3 actors for Best Supporting Actor), and winning 3 for Best Picture, Best Actor (which Brando refused to accept and boycotted the awards) and Best Adapted Screenplay.
As I eluded to earlier, this film is very much a right place/right time kind of film. That being said, it is one that holds up to the test of time extremely well. By no means should it ever be remade/rebooted or whatnot. It needs to remain the important piece of cinema that it is.
Bonus: Sauce Recipe
“Heh, come over here, kid, learn something. You never know, you might have to cook for 20 guys someday. You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it; ya make sure it doesn’t stick. You get it to a boil; you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs; heh? And a little bit o’ wine. An’ a little bit o’ sugar, and that’s my trick.” – Clemenza
What are your fond memories of The Godfather? Do you have a fun fact or piece of trivia on the film? Share it in the comments below!