“I believe in America.” Those are the first words spoken in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. They’re spoken by Bonasera, the undertaker, to the titular Godfather, Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), from whom he has sought a favor on his daughter’s wedding day.
Indeed, The Godfather is as much about America, and the American experience, as any other great movie is. So many movies have tried to make themselves less about their actual subject than about America itself. But with The Godfather, the idea was much more organic.
The film, which premiered in New York on March 14, 1972, and opened in general release 10 days later, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month. For the occasion, it’s gotten a theatrical rerelease, a new 4K Blu-ray set, and a Paramount+ series about its production called The Offer, all in March and April of this year. A separate movie about the making of the film, Francis and The Godfather, is also in the works.
The movie’s production is itself a classic American story. The Godfather was made by a group of big personalities, led by director Francis Ford Coppola, producer Robert Evans, and cinematographer Gordon Willis. Coppola, most famous at that point for writing Patton, was just 32 when The Godfather was released, while the then-unheralded star Al Pacino was just 31. The other major star, Marlon Brando, had somewhat fallen from grace, with the film serving as his successful comeback vehicle.
The making of The Godfather has been told well in multiple books about ’70s Hollywood, especially two — The Godfather Companion and Easy Riders, Raging Bulls — written by Peter Biskind. The principals were frequently at each other’s throats, with the studio even wanting to shoot the film in the present day and set it in Kansas City.
The film is famous for many things: The dozens of quotable lines, the memorable sequences, and the tendency for anyone talking about the film to eventually lapse into a Brando impression. There was also the fight with Italian-American groups angry about stereotypes, which would repeat itself three decades later with the arrival of The Sopranos.
But what really makes the film is the American story of the Corleone family and their arc, which is one of immigrant success, and tension between the old world and new. They were an immigrant family, with Vito Corleone (Brando) having come from Sicily in 1901, after which he built a business, in the form of a lucrative Mafia family (and also an olive oil company.)
The question of assimilation is explored at length in the first Godfather film. While the hotheaded oldest son, Sonny (James Caan), is the presumed successor, and the next-oldest, Fredo, is weak and ineffectual, Michael Corleone (Pacino) is the assimilated American in the family, who served in World War II, went to Dartmouth, and is seemingly headed for a future doing something not related to the family business. He’s dating a non-Italian woman (Diane Keaton), and he tells her the Corleone gangster way is “my family, Kay, it’s not me,” while also claiming the family is five years away from being “completely legitimate.”
Before long, of course, Vito will be shot, Sonny will be dead, and Michael will be called upon to kill — first a rival gangster, and then, well, all of them — and ultimately to lead the family. And his education and time in the Marines, it’s likely, served to make him a more effective mob boss.
Michael’s arc is often seen as one of descent and of tragedy, especially when one considers his arc across the two sequels. Like so many other films about the Mafia and other criminals, The Godfather is often quoted and appreciated by those who think the gunfights and whackings are cool. But there’s much more to it than that.
The Godfather, once again, isn’t just a great American movie, but an American movie about America, unlike nothing else in the second half of the twentieth century until the arrival of Do The Right Thing in 1989. And 50 years later, it’s not the slightest bit dated.Watch The Godfather