On the surface a story of organised crime and family squabbles taken to murderous lengths, look a little deeper and in fact, The Godfather films are a lesson in life, power, leadership and (of course) the importance of family. With the help of some quotations and events from Coppola’s 1970s classics*, here’s my attempt to tease out some of the key ideas.
“… [A] man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man”
Obviously, family is the huge theme running throughout the story, whether it be the Corleone family in the conventional sense, or ‘the Corleone family’ in the Mafia organisation sense, or both simultaneously. In numerous conversations amongst Don Vito Corleone and his children, such as when the Don tells eldest son Santino “Never tell anybody outside the family what you’re thinking again”, the distinction between the two disappears entirely.
The second film is divided between two storylines; one of Vito Corleone fleeing Sicily for New York and his early life there, the other of son Michael after taking over as Don following his father’s death and his attempts during the 1950s to establish business interests to Nevada, Florida and beyond. The former can perhaps best be summed up as showing us that ‘the Corleone family’ comes about because of the Corleone family- after losing his job to the demands of the local racketeer Don Fanucci and a chance encounter with shady neighbour Peter Clemenza, Vito finds himself in need of other means to support his wife Carmela and their growing number of small mouths to feed.
When Vito is still a young man, watching a play with his friend Genco Abbandando, we see an early illustration of his dedication to his family.
“What do you think of my little angel? Isn’t she beautiful?”
“She’s very beautiful. To you, she’s beautiful. For me, there’s only my wife and son.”
Carmela is a minor figure in the story, rarely even speaking on screen, but she is clearly much more important to Vito himself, with a warm and genuine love between them. For Vito, nobody else could ever hold the same importance in his heart or mind that his wife and children do, and he is driven to all of his future success and stature by his role as husband and father.
This commitment to family is passed on to his sons as well. After he finds his sister Connie crying and bruised at home, Santino tracks down her husband Carlo, gives him a few bruises of his own and leaves him with the threat of more.
“…you touch my sister again and I’ll kill you”
Deeply affected by childhood illness and then by being passed over in the succession of power, the middle son, Fredo, is something of a black sheep and struggles with Michael’s position as both “kid brother” and also boss. He occasionally also has to be reminded of where his priorities should lie.
“Fredo ….[d]on’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.”
After Carlo is killed near the end of the first film, daughter Connie descends into a period of self-destructive behaviour and bad decisions, putting men and drugs ahead of her family commitments to such an extent that even her mother gets a line, before Michael weighs in with the harsh truths.“You go see your children first, and then you worry about waiting on line to see your brother…” (Carmela) “The ink on your divorce isn’t dry yet and you’re getting married? You see your children on weekends. You know your oldest boy Victor was picked up in Reno for some petty theft you don’t even know about?….Connie, if you don’t listen to me, and marry this man, you’ll disappoint me” (Michael)
POWER AND RESPECT
Aside from killing Don Fanucci to put an end to his demands for protection money- an early debut for Vito’s favourite ‘special offer’, the Vito we see never harms anyone.
“Leave everything to me. Just remember that I did you a favour….I’ll make him an offer he don’t refuse.”
In fact he comes across as a streetwise, charismatic, resourceful young man, always out to do a good turn for people in need. He also has humility and respect for those deserving it, for example the grocer Abbandando, Genco’s father, who is his boss until Don Fanucci demands his nephew is given the job instead. Vito accepts the news from Abbandando gracefully, though it probably does little for his later antipathy towards Fanucci.
“You’ve always been good to me ever since I came here. You looked after me like a father. I thank you and I won’t forget it.”
Loving, respectful, humble, these are hardly the qualities that are traditionally believed to make a great leader of men. Where then, does Vito’s stature and power over others come from? How does he come to have a small personal army of men willing to kill, and be killed, for their boss, or to have such influence over judges and politicians so his ‘family’ can go relatively unimpeded by small irritants such as the laws of the land?
“Some day, and that day may never come, I would like to call upon you to do me a service…”
In his case, it is precisely because of these qualities, in addition to the drive to make a better life for his family and his habit of building up debts of honour by helping people where he can. Vito’s manner creates a deep respect in others, and favours owed to him tend to give him some degree of leverage when trying to improve his own situation.
Michael’s transformation from college graduate and war hero to future Don begins with the murder of Virgil Sollozzo and the police captain he hires as protection. After this, he is forced to go into hiding in Sicily under the protection of his dad’s old associate Don Tommassino. While he is there he visits the village of Corleone, and discovers it is almost devoid of men. All dead from World War II would be a sensible conclusion to jump to, but apparently not- most of the men have been killed because of vendettas. The Sicilian penchant for revenge, often violent revenge, is all about keeping honour. The reason that Michael’s bodyguard tells him that “…women are more dangerous than shotguns” is that upsetting a Sicilian woman is likely to lead to the male members of her family taking offence on her behalf and seeking to defend the family honour (for those of you with short memories, see the Connie/Carlo/Santino incident above). Vengeance does have its limits though obviously, and even the most hot-headed of paesani is not totally incapable of seeing this. As Don Corleone puts it after stating his willingness to forego vengeance for the death of Santino:
“You talk about vengeance. Is vengeance going to bring your son back to you? Or mine to me?”
This idea of honour extends throughout the society in which the Mafia existed at the time, and is hugely important for them. In every aspect of life, how you go about something and whose blessing you have to do it is at least as important as what you actually do. This concept underpins the fact that Vito Corleone, along with most if not all of the men involved in the Mafia ‘families’, does not consider himself a criminal. From his perspective he is simply supporting his family as best he can, providing his close friends with jobs and a safe(ish) environment to work in. He sees himself as simply the head of a sizeable organisation. Michael puts it best in this exchange with future wife Kay:
“My father’s no different than any other powerful man, any man who’s responsible for other people. Like a senator or president”
“Do you know how naive you sound? Senators and presidents don’t have men killed”
“Now who’s being naive Kay?”
The fact that society as a whole and the laws by which it runs consider him a criminal is an unfortunate inconvenience, to be got around as best as possible by making friends with the right people and keeping as low a profile with the police as possible. He rejects Sollozzo’s offer of a role in his proposed narcotics trade despite his sons’ advice that it would benefit the ‘family’ because he believes “…this drug business is going to destroy us in the years to come.” This is not the view of a marginal stick in the mud either, but matched by other heads of the Mafia ‘families’ like Don Zaluchi:
“I also don’t believe in drugs, for years I paid my people extra to keep them out of it”
This tradition of honour is taken to an extreme degree towards the end of Part II, when Frank Pentangeli is left knowing that his attempted betrayal of the Corleone family and, in a manner of speaking, the entire concept ‘Cosa Nostra’ is in the public domain. He has few options left to him, but the choice becomes clear after a short discussion of history with Tom Hagen. It’s true what they say: sometimes it’s the words that aren’t said that carry the most weight.
“Those were the great old days you know…. The Corleone Family was like the Roman Empire.”
“It was once Frankie, when a plot against the Emperor failed, the planners were always given a chance to let their families keep their fortunes.”
“Yeah, but only the rich guys Tom. The little guys, they got knocked off and all their estates went to the Emperors. Unless they went home and killed themselves, then nothing happened. And their families, their families were taken care of Tom.”
“That was a good break, nice funeral.”
“Yeah, they went home and sat in a hot bath, opened up their veins and bled to death….”
Not long after, Frankie did exactly that in his bath while his FBI guards played cards.
Finally, on a lighter note, there is the message- mostly expressed through Clemenza- of the value of eating well. As well as telling button man Rocco to “Leave the gun, take the cannoli” after killing the traitor Paulie, it is Clemenza who takes time out of preparing for all-out New York Mafia war to give Michael a lesson in cooking the perfect meal for 20 guys.
*fans of Godfather Part III, you’ve come to the wrong place, sorry