For some time I’ve pondered whether The Godfather fails to have in common with my other favorite films two key elements.
First, I’ve always thought the best films are about something profound. Casablanca, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fiddler on the Roof, It’s A Wonderful Life, Gone With the Wind, Excalibur, The Right Stuff, Soldier of Orange, Chariots of Fire and many others are truly about things, events, characters’ growth and change – about something meaningful!
Second, the great majority of the best films are notable for how they were different in some important ways from everything before them and how they changed some part of filmdom after them. Space Odyssey, GWTW, and the 1991 Beauty and the Beast certainly broke new pathways and had huge impacts on many films that followed.
In future columns, I’ll discuss some of these films and aspects. No doubt Godfather is about something powerful, but is it something worth pondering? And how was it different and what impact did it have on later films?
A good insight on the power of the Godfather series is a story about how director Francis Ford Coppola came to his basic understanding of the material before becoming director. In the late 1960s, Coppola was part of a party-hearty San Francisco and Marin crowd that gathered at one Marin home or another on Friday afternoons and didn’t resurface until Monday morning.
One weekend, Coppola was struck by seeing a young lady, a smart woman and true regular partier, spending the weekend by herself in a back bedroom reading this new book, The Godfather. He’d seen other young, worldly, hip women swept up by what he assumed to be a gangster shoot-‘em-up bit of pulp, and he asked what the attraction was.
Having just finished the novel, she looked at him soulfully and said, “It’s about family.”
Completely surprised, he dove into the book himself with that perspective and concluded she had nailed it. When he was fortunate enough to be named director, he brought that and similar insights as his guiding themes. And to the surprise of nearly everyone at the time not involved in the project, it was the obvious 1972 Best Picture, also being nominated for and winning many other awards.
It was also multi-dimensional, mixing family, horrifying violence, true patriotism (the first words, earnestly, are from an undertaker: “I believe in America.”), perhaps the first sympathetic, nuanced and rich portrayal of Italian-American culture, and more. In all this and other ways, it’s truly about something profound.
Four scenes among many illustrate this.
In part I, Pop (the first Godfather) and his youngest son Michael, are sitting in the garden after oldest son and original heir-apparent Sonny has been brutally murdered and middle son Fredo almost gets Pop murdered by his ineptness in guarding him. Pop is turning over the Godfather duties to Michael, saying, “I never wanted this for you,” and explaining that Santino (Sonny), “rest his soul” was a bad Don and Fredo was unthinkable.
Pop had always wanted his favorite and youngest son to take the family legitimate, as “Governor Corleone, Senator Coreleone …” but now must train him as the next Don. Truly one of the most touching scenes ever.
At the end of part II, Godfather Michael, who was always the perfect “prudent man” and made every right move timely (especially killing all his enemies), sits in his mansion overlooking Lake Tahoe. He’s done everything right, yet now has but a mouthful of ashes.
Toward the end of part III, very old and retired, Michael nods out by himself on a simple chair in a courtyard back in Sicily. Near death, he’s consumed by one thought: the four women in his life – his mother, two wives and daughter. Shortly thereafter, in the final scene, in horror he holds the body of that lovely daughter who has been shot in the heart in front of him.
The profound message? As one business partner once explained to him: “This is the life we have chosen.”
And certainly, when we consider all these elements in a supposed gangster pulp shoot-‘em-up, this trilogy is completely different from everything before and has influenced so much that came afterwards.