The Godfather: 45 years of a stirring and essential movie viewing experience
The Godfather. Perhaps one of the greatest films and franchises of all time. Much has been said and written about this landmark movie and it’s only fitting that as it approaches another milestone anniversary, the accolades continue.
March 24th will mark the 45th anniversary of the film’s theatrical release, a number that in ways seems both large and small. Large from the perspective that it’s already been nearly five decades since it shook the cinematic world, yet small in that a film of such importance and influence was released in the backyard of our modern history: 1972.
It was not the first gangster/crime film (and certainly wouldn’t be the last) yet it managed to capture a certain humanity with its criminal anti-heroes that no predecessors had ever been able to. Of course the same must be said of the 1969 novel by Mario Puzo, who crafted a seminal work in the canon of American crime fiction.
The full-bodied nature of the Corleone Family and the other characters helped to create a relatable aspect that audiences did not normally have when watching mob movies. Characters like Michael, Tom Hagen, and even Don Vito to an extent revealed their vulnerabilities and showed themselves to be more than just ‘tough guys’. Michael’s story in particular of the reluctant successor makes us question how we would react if suddenly put in his shoes. These characters coupled with the seldom told tale of the immigrant experience (and tales of old Italy) helped to make the movie seem almost like a fairy tale. A modern and more violent one for certain, but a fairy tale nonetheless.
It is in this fairy tale medium that, for better or for worse, The Godfather introduced the grand theme of romanticism. Latching onto people’s perceptions of what life in the mob is really like, for years the view of the real Mafia was obscured by notions that it resembled the world of Don Vito Corleone.While the story is fairly accurate in its portrayal of 1940s turf wars, it simultaneously adds a layer of melodrama that hid some of the more brutal realities of mob existence.
Later acclaimed films like Goodfellas and The Departed would deviate from the romantic nature of their story and show more of the gritty and violent aspects of being a mobster.
Whether or not The Godfather’s romanticism is good or bad in the long run is debatable, but it is clear that that theme made it stand out in 1972 and continues to make it stand out today.
It could be argued that without the romantic nature of the film (and the book) it would have never taken off. After all mob movies had been around since at least 1912 (DW Griffiths’ The Musketeers of Pig Allery is widely credited as being the first mob film), so how would this feature in 1972 bring anything new to the genre? Yet something new is indeed what it brought. Those characters, that story, and that romanticism particularly set it apart in ways that caught viewers by surprise, but simultaneously made them embrace the movie immediately.
To this day, while other movies like the previously mentioned Goodfellas, the now cult classic Scarface, and TV series like The Sopranos have achieved popularity and acclaim for being almost the anti-Godfather, the formula The Godfather went for has made it seem timeless. Like any good fairy tale, its story is important because of its grand arching themes and human touch.
Godfather’ was very classical – the way it was shot, the style – the whole driving force of it was more classical, almost Shakespearean. – Francis Ford Coppola
There is also a nostalgia ever present in the film of another time. Nicely packaged with the romanticism, audiences are presented with a desire to be a part of a time period they perhaps had not even lived through, yet now wanted to experience. Unlike Scarface or Casino for example, which while fascinating and engaging, there is generally no desire by viewers to enter that world. They are repulsed and amazed by the excesses of it all.
Conversely with The Godfather, being part of that world is something to be desired, is something to admire. This is not to say the filmmakers or Puzo wanted to encourage criminal association. But they did want to put forward their characters not as evil killers, but as part of a larger commentary on crime in America and most importantly as people of relatable attributes, like strong family values.
And so while The Godfather contains its share of violence and disturbing material (the severed horse’s head for example), it ultimately transcends that and makes its impression on us not with bloodshed but with real characters and timeless themes (romantic or not)
Of course beyond the story, the directorial work, the acting work, and the musical score all helped make this movie one of the best in cinema (along with The Godfather Part II)
Then newcomer Francis Ford Coppola bet it all on this story of the Corleone clan. In the process, he not only defied everyone’s expectations but solidified himself as one of the greatest of the new wave of American directors.
The performances by Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Diane Keaton and others brought to life brilliantly the full-bodied creations of Mario Puzo. Brando won the Academy Award (though he refused to accept it) and Pacino was automatically certified as a leading man. The mix of acting heavyweights and new blood not only signalled the passing of the torch, but the promise of tomorrow.
And of course the iconic score by the Italian maestro Nino Rota, with tracks also by Carmine Coppola, has endured as one of the most recognizable and haunting of all film scores. The solitary and mournful trumpet of the main theme remains as affecting today as it did 45 years ago. Other tracks like the love theme “Speak Softly Love”, Michael’s Theme and the Immigrant Theme leave impressions on us too, complementing the previously discussed romanticism.
With these elements The Godfather series left an indelible mark on cinema and those who love film. There’s been a number of great mob films, TV series, and literature since then (and some would argue that Martin Scorsese’s work is even greater than The Godfather) yet it was The Godfather’s influence that started it all. It shook our perceptions of the crime saga and infused it with great romanticism. But it also put a tragic and human spotlight on the genre that has been able to remain relevant to this day.
So we celebrate this monumental film once again on this anniversary and thank Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola and all involved for not solely entertaining, but ultimately moving us.