Coppola’s Godfather Story
“There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.”
It’s easy to talk about the impact that the Godfather trilogy has on popular culture today. Countless fan posters printed, parodies and references made in TV shows and movies, memorable terms and lines that have assimilated into everyday conversations, the wearing of 40s style silk suits and ties and the good old slicked-back hairstyle.
One would think that this movie franchise was destined for greatness from the very start. Not likely. Filming the first movie was a living nightmare, especially for director Francis Ford Coppola. The odds seemed to be against their favor in every corner.
In 1972, The Godfather was released. It was based on a best-selling novel by Mario Puzo (who turned into a screenwriter for the trilogy). Audiences, however, had very little to expect from the movie. Gangster movies at the time were considered a lowly genre anyway, one that was doomed for commercial failure. And that was how Paramount Pictures treated this movie. They hired the inexperienced Coppola because, well, he was cheap. They thought they had little to lose.
Also, it was because other directors turned down the offer. They didn’t want to glorify organized crime or to stereotype Italian Americans (Paramount Pictures had to face problems concerning the former and the latter. They actually had to deal with real Mafia leaders who didn’t want the film to be made. Talk about problems.).
Coppola accepted the offer, but with his own terms : “It’s not a film about organized gangsters. But a family chronicle. A metaphor for capitalism in America.”
After all, the word “mafia” was only used once in the first movie.
He was ridiculed, needless to say. He was constantly on the verge of getting fired. Not only was Paramount unhappy with his directing, they were outraged by the cast that Coppola had hand-picked — A crew of nobodies, with the exception of Marlon Brando, who at the time was considered to be way past his glory days. They were particularly livid with his casting of Al Pacino for the main role of Michael Corleone. Pacino was too inexperienced, too short, timid, and all his 3 screen tests were awful. Coppola, however, was steadfast in his belief that Pacino was the only man for the role.
He was right, wasn’t he? Al Pacino’s acting in The Godfather Trilogy is considered to be among the finest performances in film history. Pacino could act with only his eyes and not say a word, and still leave the viewers mesmerized. The Godfather and its sequel, The Godfather Part II are praised as masterpieces of cinema. Part III, though not as successful, still joins the previous movies as classics. Many, many awards were spawned. I stumbled upon a Youtube comment the other day saying that “Even the chair is good at acting in The Godfather”. I couldn’t agree more.
Filmed four decades ago, the story still feels very relevant today and is still extremely watchable. Other than secretly wishing I were an Italian American, I couldn’t help but think that it’s a story that could’ve been written centuries ago, like a Shakespearean drama or a Greek tragedy — The classic tale of a king who is undone by his own arrogance, who takes his power too far.
As Coppola said, it’s a family chronicle. Not that many people can relate to being a criminal, but nearly everyone can relate to a family tale.
And in a little more modern view, it’s a metaphor for capitalism — Of what profit you get when you obtain virtually all the power, all the material things you want, yet lose your soul and everything that’s actually important to you. Whether the characters parted their hair in the middle, or on the right, or on the left, it’s like nothing much has changed from their time to mine.
Coppola and Puzo did an amazing, amazing job giving the story an inner life — Not making the characters one-dimensional, showing a more vulnerable, human side.
Why do I enjoy watching The Godfather so much? Because often times I forget that I’m watching a movie. I forget that the characters are just characters, and that they aren’t real. And because there’s so much depth in it that every time I watch it, I learn something new — Whether it’s from the characters’ body language that tells us a little about their motives, or the symbolism used, plot devices and so on.
Assuming you’ve never watched any of the movies, The Godfather Trilogy largely revolves around one character — A man who was not proud to be born in a family of crime, who eventually stepped into the dark side and fired a gun only to save his dying father. But he was pulled deeper and deeper into the dark hole he placed himself in, to a point where he lost everything he swore to protect. Such a character is Michael Corleone.
It’s not a gangster movie, no, not really. It doesn’t glorify criminals. It glorifies what a man would do for his family. And perhaps, it’s a warning and a timeless reminder of how power can destroy a man.
If the Godfather Trilogy were given a different name, it would probably be called “The Tragedy of Michael Corleone”.
The Family Business
“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
The Godfather begins with the wedding of Connie, the youngest and only daughter in the Corleone family. The family of criminals are portrayed as regular people — Singing and dancing, laughing and having a great time. Here we are introduced to the rich tapestry of characters, beginning with Vito Corleone, the Mafia Don, or more honorably referred to as the Godfather.
We are also acquainted with his sons, whom each represent a trait in Vito’s personality. We have Sonny, who has his father’s share of rage and violence; Tom Hagen, Vito’s adopted son and the family’s consigliere (laywer or the Don’s adviser), who has his mind for caution and patience; Fredo, who has his father’s softness and sweetness; and lastly, Michael, who has his father’s cunning and business-mindedness.
We also meet a Frank Sinatra like figure named Johnny Fontane, who is a godson to Vito Corleone.
Vito : You spend time with your family?
Johnny : Sure I do.
Vito : Good. ‘Cause a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.
In the first few scenes, we get to know Vito as the epitome of respectability and masculinity, a man of power to ask favors from, a man to turn to for real justice.
Throughout the trilogy, we often find ourselves walking down the brick road of Vito’s legacy. He appears to be somewhat of an all-rounder — Someone who is successful in his business (of organized crime) and in his household. A crime boss, yet a respectable figure in society. He treats everyone warmly and is a convivial presence at home.
The funny thing is, you and I have to pinch ourselves and remember that these are criminals that we’re seeing. But it doesn’t feel like it, does it? We see ourselves in their family rituals, we’re invited to their weddings, we eat spaghetti at their table, we cook in their kitchen.
They even seem to hide away from themselves the fact that they are criminals. They think of themselves as businessmen, they call their crime operations as family businesses.
Members of the Corleone family are depicted not as one-dimensional criminals, but as multi-layered family men whose chosen business is crime.
We shouldn’t forget that they’re criminals, duh. But “buh-da-bing!”, do we sympathize with them.
We like them, we laugh at their jokes, we humanize them, we rationalize them — We understand that they are loyal to their family and their idea of ethics. We justify what they do, we know what motivates them, that no matter how horrible their acts are, they are done for their family.
We feel that Vito Corleone is the good guy, and he romanticizes the idea of being in the Mafia — It’s better than being a corrupt cop or a crooked politician. And so we feel that way, for now.
“That’s my family, Kay. That’s not me.”
During the wedding Vito refuses to take a family photo. “We’re not taking the picture without Michael,” he said. Michael later arrives fully dressed in his military uniform with his all-American girlfriend, Kay in his arm. His family is excited to see him return home as a war hero.
His conversations with Kay reveal that he is the only man who remains uncorrupted by the family business.
Michael : …So the next day, my father went to see him; only this time with Luca Brasi. And within an hour, he signed a release, for a certified check for $1,000.
Kay : How’d he do that?
Michael : My father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Kay : What was that?
Michael : Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my father assured him that either his brains — or his signature — would be on the contract.
That’s a true story.
That’s my family, Kay. That’s not me.
Commenting on Michael’s character, Al Pacino said, “I don’t think Michael ever felt comfortable in himself. I think he had to acclimate to the new America and its values, to the point where he actually enlisted in the Army and becomes a war hero.”
Michael is the quintessential outsider. At some extent, it even seems that by joining the Army, he was mocking his family. He was drawing the line between him and his family to show that, “This is what they do. This is not who I am.”
“I’m with you now.”
Michael’s reluctance to dabble in the family business was challenged when his father was gunned down by assassins for his opposition to the growing heroin business. Afraid that he might lose his father in another assassination attempt, Michael was compelled to join his brothers in avenging him.
A decorated war hero, Michael now decides that he has to fight for what’s more important than his country — His family.
He learned that the outside world is no less corrupted than that of the Mafia.
What he didn’t know was that after firing his gun, there was no going back. The moment Michael takes up the family business, he changes his life forever. He departed from one world and entered another. Michael had to go into hiding in Sicily after the murders. News of Michael’s crime made its way to the recuperating Vito, who upon receiving it, was terribly disappointed.
Vito (bedridden, whispering) : Where’s Michael?
(then, a little louder, after Tom doesn’t answer)
Tom : It was Michael — who killed Sollozzo.
“In Sicily, women are more dangerous than shotguns.”
While hiding in Sicily, Michael was lovestruck with a beautiful woman named Apollonia. Upon meeting her, Michael confronted her father and asked for her hand in marriage. To Michael, Apollonia was more than just a woman. She was the soothing light in the dark tunnel, an opportunity for a new start. Perhaps she even resembled his prior innocence.
Their marriage was more than mere romance. Michael was seeking redemption for the sins that had contaminated his family, particularly his own sin of murder.
We are brought to attend their humble yet joyous wedding as the couple savored their first moments as husband and wife. Michael planned on bringing her with him when the time was right to return to America.
And the time was now. Michael got word that Sonny had been brutally murdered, and that the rival Mafia families have discovered his whereabouts in Sicily.
As Michael and Apollonia prepared to flee for America, a bomb intended for Michael killed her instead.
Even though the bomb didn’t kill Michael, he truly died that day. Apollonia’s death convinced Michael that there can be no redemption for him, no chance for future happiness or atonement, no turning back to how life was before. If he didn’t take control of the family business, he could lose many more of his loved ones.
Vito (during the meeting) : I’m a superstitious man — and if some unlucky accident should befall (Michael) — if he should get shot in the head by a police officer — or if he should hang himself in his jail cell — or if he’s struck by a bolt of lightning — then I’m going to blame some of the people in this room. And that, I do not forgive.
Meanwhile in America, Vito, devastated by his son’s death, holds a meeting with the heads of the five Mafia families. They came to an agreement that Vito will withdraw his opposition to the heroin business and forgo the vengeance for Sonny’s death, with Vito’s term that Michael must be able to come home safely.
Michael : My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.
Kay : Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don’t have men killed!
Michael : Oh. Who’s being naive, Kay?”
Upon returning home from Sicily, Michael was groomed to replace his ailing father as the new Don. A different man than he was before, Michael seemed cold, cynical, and remote.
He rekindled his relationship with Kay and asked to marry her. But unlike his boyish courtship with Apollonia, he acted less like a lover, and more like a negotiator conducting a business deal. Everything now was business, nothing personal.
Observant viewers would notice that during Michael’s conversation with Kay, the Godfather’s main theme was playing in the background — In the film, the main theme is only played when some business was done — For example, the famous horse scene, the “Leave the gun, take the cannoli” scene. Details, man.
It wasn’t made out of love. It was just a business deal by Michael. He wanted children to pass on his legacy to.
Michael promised Kay that the family business will be legitimate in 5 years time — A vision that he failed to realize was impossible.
A Father’s Wishes
“I never wanted this for you.”
Vito : I never wanted this for you. I work my whole life, I don’t apologize, to take care of my family…I don’t apologize — that’s my life — but I thought that — when it was your time — that — that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator – Corleone. Governor – Corleone, or something…
Michael : Another pezzonovante…
Vito : Well — this wasn’t enough time, Michael. Wasn’t enough time…
Michael : We’ll get there, Pop — we’ll get there…
Among Vito’s sons, Michael might have been the best option to take up the family business. Sonny was too hot-headed, Tom was too nice, Fredo was too soft and dim-witted. But Vito had always dreamed a better future for Michael.
Vito had worked hard to get Michael into college. Michael was his hope to bring the Corleone family to a higher degree of respectability — To become a “pezzonovante” — A man of importance — Governor Corleone — or a Senator Corleone — Much to Michael’s rebelliousness.
Michael only briefly attended college and after Pearl Harbor, he then enlisted in the Marines, without first consulting his family members.
How interesting to witness Michael’s transformation from “That’s my family, Kay. That’s not me.” to a ruthless Mafia Don.
As Vito died from a heart attack and Michael reigned in power, he “settled all family business” — Ordering the assassination of all heads of the five Mafia families, and murdering everyone who betrayed the family or was a threat to his growing empire.
Living Up To A Father’s Legacy
“It’s not easy to be his son.”
And so begins Godfather Part II.
In Coppola’s words :
“One of the reasons I wanted to make Godfather II is that I wanted to take Michael to what I felt was the logical conclusion. He wins every battle, his brilliance and his resources enable him to defeat all his enemies. I didn’t want Michael to die. I didn’t want Michael to be put into prison. I didn’t want him to be assassinated by his rivals. But, in a bigger sense, I also wanted to destroy Michael. There’s no doubt that, by the end of this picture, Michael Corleone, having beaten everyone, is sitting there alone, a living corpse.”
In Part II, the film follows a non-linear plot which alternates between a young Vito’s rise to power and Michael’s spiritual fall, between the past and present.
It has been 7 years from the moment when Michael had promised Kay that his business will be legitimate, and Michael still hasn’t attained that goal.
Michael grew paranoid over an assassination attempt on him, in which Kay was also almost killed.
He later discovered that it was his own brother, Fredo who aided in the attempt on his life.
Michael : You believed that story. You believed that.
Fredo : He said there was something in it for me — on my own.
Michael : I’ve always taken care of you, Fredo.
Fredo : Taken care of me?! You’re my kid brother and you take care of me. Did you ever think about that — did you ever once think about that? Send Fredo off to do this — send Fredo off to do that! Let Fredo take care of some Mickey Mouse night club somewhere! Send Fredo to pick somebody up at the airport! I’m your older brother Mike and I was stepped over!
Michael : That’s the way Pop wanted it.
Fredo : It ain’t the way I wanted it! I can handle things I’m smart — not like everyone says — not dumb, smart and I want respect!
Fredo was approached by one of the family’s rivals who offered a business deal and wanted Michael to be assassinated. He baited on Fredo’s feelings of inferiority and assured him that it would make him a bigshot, and that it was good for the family.
Fredo had always been left out of the picture. Even when he was little, Mama Corleone used to joke that he was adopted. Sometimes he believed that joke was actually true, even though it wasn’t.
In Part I, one would remember when Sonny and Tom Hagen had a heated argument regarding Vito’s assassination attempt.
Sonny said, “That’s easy for you to say, Tom, he’s not your father!”
Tom responded, “I’m as much a son to him as you or Mike.”
What about Fredo?
Fredo’s insecurity heightened when Michael was chosen to replace Vito. Why not Fredo? He was older than Michael, so why didn’t Vito pick him instead?
Death In The Family
“I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.”
Michael : Fredo, you’re nothing to me now. You’re not a brother, you’re not a friend, I don’t want to know you or what you do — I don’t want to see you at the hotels — I don’t want you near my house — when you see our mother I want to know a day in advance, so I won’t be there — you understand.
A Malay proverb says that water; no matter what you do to chop it off, it just won’t break — Whatever happens between you and a family member, it doesn’t change him or her as family. You are of the same blood, and it will stay that way forever.
Michael could have forgiven Fredo, knowing Fredo’s personality — Sweet, fragile. He doesn’t do things out of meanness. But Michael didn’t. Business is business, nothing is to be taken personally, even if that meant murdering his own brother.
And that is where Michael’s power took him too far.
In other places of Michael’s personal life, they were deteriorating as well. Kay aborted their unborn child, because she couldn’t bear to raise another one of Michael’s children. Kay who is all-American and does not understand a Sicilian wife’s code of ethics, constantly questions her husband about his business. She had had enough of living in an unholy family of crime.
Michael and Kay separated, with Michael not letting her take their children with her.
Michael : Tell me something, Ma. What did Papa think — deep in his heart? He was being strong — strong for his family. But by being strong for his family — could he — lose it?
Mama : You’re thinking about your wife — about the baby you lost. But you and your wife can always have another baby.
Michael : No, I meant — lose his family.
Mama : But you can never lose your family.
Michael : Times are changing.
“If history has taught us anything it’s that you can kill anyone.”
After Mama Corleone died, Michael decided that it was the right time to order the assassination of his rivals, and of Fredo.
This was the most heart-wrenching scene in the movie; we see how Michael regrets his decision and nothing could be undone.
Aristotle wrote in his Poetics, “If a man kills another man, it is a crime. If a man kills his own brother, it is a tragedy.”
Michael sits alone in a park with a cigarette lit in his hand. He has “gained it all” — His family business prospered, his war against his enemies already won. But all that remains of Michael is a living corpse — He has become heartless, without a soul, and without a family.
In the effort to protect his family from the outside, he lets them weaken on the inside.
Sonny : They’re saps because they risk their lives for strangers.
Michael : Now that’s Pop talking.
Sonny : You’re goddamn right that’s Pop talking.
Michael : They risk, they risk their lives for their country.
Sonny : Your country’s not your blood — you remember that.
Michael : I don’t feel that way.
Sonny : Well if you don’t feel that way why don’t you just quit college and go to — go to join the Army.
Michael : I did — I enlisted in the Marines.
Tom : Now you don’t understand but, your father has big plans for you. Now many times he and I have talked about your future.
Michael : You talked to my father about my future? My future.
Tom : Mikey, he has high hopes for you.
Michael : Well I have my own plans for my future.
Sonny : What, did you go to college to be stupid? You’re really stupid.
We are taken back to a long time ago : It is Vito’s birthday and his children are planning a surprise for him. This scene spawns a strange feeling — We are suddenly reliving a time when all the characters were alive and well. It makes us feel that the Corleones are now just a shadow of what used to be a happy family.
At the dinner table, Michael announces his decision to leave college and join the Army. Tom was shocked, Sonny almost punched him, but Fredo supported him. Only Fredo shook his hand and congratulated him at the time when he needed the support of his family members.
When Vito arrived, everyone rushes to the door to surprise him, except Michael, who remains in his seat — Similar to how he ends up in the future — Alone.
“Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.”
The act of murder must have a consequence spiritually — What more if you murder your own brother.
In Part III, Michael seeks repentance and struggles to repatch his relationship with God Himself. The Corleone home is now a mansion of bad memories, of past sins.
We see a change in Michael’s character, he now appears more convivial, more friendly and talkative. And he is especially sensitive to his past heartlessness. Particularly haunting him are his memories of him ordering Fredo’s murder.
He works on becoming an actual legitimate businessman, not a Mafia Don, and tries to reconcile with his family, including Kay who at this time has already remarried.
He sells his gambling investments, buys into European conglomerates, and even contributes a 100 million dollars to a Sicilian fund to help the needy.
But just when he again sought a new life, the life of the Mafia pulled him back in. He witnessed cesspools of corruption in the Catholic Church and in the world of “legitimate” business.
Legitimacy is impossible, he just realized. Yet there’s no safe return to the homeland for Michael. The future is a scam, the past fades away, and life is wasted.
“I spent my life protecting my family.”
“This time I really set out to destroy the family. Yet I wanted to destroy it in the way that I think is most profound — from the inside. And I wanted to punish Michael, but not in the obvious ways.”
Francis Ford Coppola
For the rest of his life, Michael longs to be the person he was before taking up the family business.
Michael’s only son refuses to take his place in the family business, and his power is instead passed over to his nephew (Sonny’s son).
Michael experienced a Hell of his own making when he witnessed his own daughter’s death — A bullet intended for Michael took her life instead. It was an incredibly excruciating moment, but one in which Michael was justly punished for his sins.
The Godfather Trilogy ends with Michael dying old and alone in Sicily. Unlike Vito who died while playing with his grandson, Michael died with no company, no loved one to spend his final moments with.
One might feel that Part III isn’t as moving as the previous two films as it reiterates the same message that you can have all you want, but none of it matters if you aren’t content on the inside, if you are materially wealthy but your soul is impoverished.
Part III wasn’t meant to happen anyway, which is why there’s a huge gap between it and the previous movie.
Throughout the trilogy, we notice quite a contrast between Michael and Vito, don’t we? Vito’s a guy that we’d want to be like, and Michael’s a cold character that we are repulsed by. Vito was successful in his business and in his personal relationships, while Michael succeeded in the former but failed in the latter. Vito died in the company of his family that he worked to protect, but Michael died alone, having lost the family that he lived to protect.