Truly one of the great films of American cinema, The Godfather is ranked as the #2 film of all time on the AFI list of the 100 Greatest Films, trailing only Citizen Kane. The story of the making of this film is almost as dramatic and riveting as the film itself. Director Francis Ford Coppola was nearly fired from the film, and he claims that the fact that he won an Oscar for Best Screenplay for Patton was the only thing that prevented him from getting fired. No one from the studio wanted to hire Marlon Brando, and there were many other issues with casting as well. Oh yeah, and there was also the little problem with the fact that many powerful people in the Mafia didn’t want the film to be made.
The fact that this film was made is a minor miracle in and of itself. The fact that it’s one of the greatest films of all time confirms that miracle, and is a testament to what can happen in Hollywood when just the right combination of talent comes together to create a magnificent work of art.
In thinking about this film, I had to wonder what your humble narrator could possibly say about The Godfather that hasn’t already been said or written by film scholars and historians with much more clout than I. I’ve seen The Godfather many times, but I tried watching it this weekend with a fresh perspective. I tried to follow the structure of the script and look at it from the perspective of a screenwriter. In doing this I was reminded of something that my first screenwriting instructor at USC told me a long time ago. He said that The Godfather is actually the only mainstream American film that has two heroes. One of them is Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and the other is his son Michael (Al Pacino). It was paying close attention to the structure of the screenplay that made me realize that this could actually be true.
The first 40 minutes of The Godfather is basically prologue. The film opens with the marriage of Connie Corleone (Talia Shire) to Carlo. The wedding sequence is followed by a sequence in which Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) goes to Hollywood in order to convince the studio head Jack Woltz to hire Vito’s godson Johnny Fontaine to be in his next picture, and culminates with the famous horse head scene, have little to do with the rest of the story. We do meet the undertaker, who will play a role later in the picture, but there are few story elements that take place in those first 40 minutes that have much to do with the rest of the film. Instead, those minutes are spent introducing us to all of the characters of this drama. We meet everyone in the Corleone family, as well as their henchmen Luca Brasi, Tessio and Clemenza. We get to see what kind of person Vito is, what kind of person Sonny (James Caan) is, and the dynamic of all of their relationships.
From the perspective of the Hero’s Journey, as laid out by Christopher Vogler in his book, The Writer’s Journey, these sequences set up the Ordinary World. We see that the Ordinary World for Vito is that he is the head of a powerful Mob family in New York. People come to him when they have no one else to turn to, and if you are his friend, or if you can pay him, he will get you what you want, whether it’s justice for your beaten daughter, or the lead role in the new Woltz Picture production. We also see that Michael’s Ordinary World is one of sideline spectator. He enters the wedding with his new girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), and we learn through the stories that he tells her that he knows what his father does and he knows what the family is about, but he does not partake in it. In fact, he’s a war hero, just home from World War II, and is in his dress uniform when we first meet him.
The story really gets going when Vito receives his Call to Adventure. Tom tells Vito that with Sollozzo, a young up-and-comer also known as The Turk wants the Don to invest in his narcotics trade. The Meeting With the Mentor also happens in this scene as Tom is the family lawyer and also now acts as the consigliere, and advises Vito that narcotics are the next big thing and if they don’t get involved the other families will and over time the Corleone family will lose power and political influence. The Refusal of the Call happens in the same scene when Vito tells Sollozzo that drugs are a dangerous business, and that he’ll likely lose his support in the police department and with the judges and politicians if he gets involved with it. However, Sonny seems to like the idea and Sollozzo notices. The Crossing of the First Threshold happens when Sollozzo’s men shoot Vito. Sollozzo himself takes part in the killing of Luca Brasi and he kidnaps Tom to tell him to have Sonny make the deal. It isn’t personal. It’s just business.
Meanwhile Michael finds out that his father has been shot. Remarkably, Vito wasn’t killed, so while visiting him in the hospital, Michael notices that none of the security is there, and a nurse tells him that the police sent them away. He makes a quick call to Sonny to let him know and then, with the help of the nurse, moves Vito to another room. He goes to the front of the hospital and stares down a couple of mobsters in their car before they hastily drive away. The police show up and when Michael asks Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) how much The Turk is paying him, McCluskey punches him in the face, breaking his jaw.
Michael’s Call to Adventure follows. Sollozzo requests a meeting, and Michael, knowing that these men will not stop until they’ve killed Vito, volunteers to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey. Michael’s Call is initially refused by both Sonny and Tom, but Michael persuades both of them that he can do it, and he also has ideas on how to use the press to pin McCluskey as a corrupt cop in order to reduce the heat from the police. For the first time, we are seeing that Michael could lead the family.
Michael Crosses the First Threshold by killing Sollozzo and McCluskey and then going into hiding in Sicily. With that in mind, Michael’s transition is not only from the Ordinary World of mob “civilian” who takes no role in family business to the Special World of mob “leader” who is now as deeply involved as anyone in the family, but also a physical transition from the Ordinary World of New York City to the Special World of Sicily. There Michael goes right into the Tests, Allies and Enemies portion of his story. He has body guards that go everywhere with him, and he’s under the protection of a local Don Tomasino. He hasn’t been there long when he meets Apollonia, the daughter of a local tavern owner, and he asks the father permission to court and marry his daughter. Michael does court her, and eventually marries her as well.
Back in New York, Vito’s Tests, Allies and Enemies portion of the story is taking place while he recovers from his wound. Michael’s actions have started an all-out gang war and the casualties are mounting. Carlo is showing himself to be abusive of Connie, and Sonny tracks him down on the street and beats him with a garbage can, threatening to kill him if he ever touches his sister again. A short time later, Carlo beats Connie with a belt, and she calls Sonny on the phone. Enraged, Sonny gets in a car to drive there. He’s stopped at a toll booth and viciously gunned down by a half a dozen guys with machine guns. Don Vito’s Approach is when Tom tells him that Sonny has been killed, and Vito tells him that there will be no acts of vengeance and he calls a meeting with the heads of the five families so that the war can end now.
The Supreme Ordeal for Vito is the meeting, which is led by Don Barzini. . In return for a truce, Vito has to open up his judicial influence to the other families so that they can all get involved with the narcotics trade. Vito does demand that Michael be allowed to come back to America and in a show of strength he makes it clear that should any accident befall Michael, he’ll be sure to blame the people in this room and his vengeance then will be swift and terrible. He also makes peace with Don Tataglia, who he initially thought was responsible for Sonny’s death, but he’s now figured out that it was really Barzini all along.
Michael’s Approach follows when he finds out about Sonny’s death. Don Tomasino tells him that it’s no longer safe for him and he has to move. His Supreme Ordeal happens when he discovers that one of his bodyguards has betrayed him buy wiring his car, but he can’t stop Apollonia before she tries to start it and it explodes, killing her. Michael then goes home where his Reward is waiting for him in the person of Kay Adams. She hasn’t seen or heard anything from him in years and initially refuses to go with him, but he convinces her that he loves her and makes a promise to her that in five years the Corleone family will be completely legitimate.
Vito’s Reward is to have Michael start taking over the family business. He never actually wanted that for Michael, but it’s clear right away that he’s better at it than Sonny ever would have been, and his other son Fredo just isn’t strong or smart enough for the role. Vito’s Road Back is the scene in which he becomes and archetypal shape shifter by serving as Michael’s Mentor and warning him of a meeting he’ll be invited to by someone he trusts and at that meeting he’ll be assassinated. Vito’s Resurrection happens in this scene as well as he officially passes the torch to Michael. He confesses to Michael that he’s done what he can to take care of his family and he owes apologies for that to no one. He is a man who is at the end of his life and has made peace with himself. The Return With the Elixir for Vito is the scene where he spends his last moments alive playing with his grandson. For the first time in the film we see Vito truly and totally happy.
Michael’s Road Back is a literal one as well as a symbolic one. He is back in New York and he is back in the family. In fact, he is now in charge of the family business, and is going to take it places it’s never been. He sees Las Vegas as the future and is going to move the family there so that they can get into the casino business and become legitimate, as he promised Kay. The problem out there is that Moe Green refuses to sell his casino. This, and other things, leave Michael with business to settle first.
At Vito’s funeral, Tessio reveals himself to be the traitor by wanting to set up a meeting with Barzini. This leads to one of the most famous sequences in the history of cinema. Michael’s Resurrection is when he stands to be Godfather to Connie and Carlo’s new baby. As we see Michael proclaim his belief in God and as he renounces Satan and all his works, Michael’s men kill Barzini, Tataglia, and all of the heads of the other 5 families, along with Moe Green and everyone else who was standing in his way. After the baptism, he gets Carlo to admit that he worked with Barzini to get Sonny killed. In one last act of retribution, Michael assures Carlo he’s safe, and then has him brutally murdered.
The Return With the Elixir for Michael is the most powerful man in the Mafia. His business is settled, even as he lies to Kay when he tells her that he had nothing to do with Carlo’s death. In one of the most famous movie endings ever, we see the door close on her as Clemenza and others pay their respects to Michael.
There it is. Two Hero’s Journeys for two separate and equally important characters in the same film. That’s just one of the aspects of this film that make it so wonderful. In fact, Michael’s character arc in The Godfather is an amazing piece of work. Any aspiring screenwriter could learn a great deal about character development by watching how screenwriters Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo used the story to turn Michael from honest and empathetic war hero to a ruthless and sinister Mafia boss. For me, Michael’s character transformation is what makes this film and this story so compelling. That’s especially true when you juxtapose it with the opposite transition that Vito is experiencing, but in a more subtle way.
Combing all of those things with the amazing performances of all of the players as well as the subtly amazing and underrated cinematography, we have a film in The Godfather that is truly one for the ages.
Did the Academy get it right?
Yes they did. This is one of the biggest no-brainers in the history of the Academy. I haven’t actually seen The Emigrants or Sounder so I can’t speak about them. Cabaret is a wonderful film that made Liza Minnelli a star, and I recommend seeing it if you haven’t seen it before. It actually has a deep and dramatic story as the characters try and live a bohemian lifestyle in Berlin in the early days of the Nazis. Deliverance is also an iconic film that is much more than just the one scene that everyone remembers. But The Godfather is one of the greatest films of all time. It has a script that is not only an incredibly well structured story, but it also has some of the most iconic dialogue ever committed to the screen. The actors were all at the top of their games and Coppola was also at his best as a director. This is a film where everyone was in the zone, and it was one of the most deserving films to ever win Best Picture.