Study Guide

The Godfather

The Godfather Introduction


Release Year: 1972

Genre: Crime, Drama

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Writer: Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo (novel)

Stars: Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, James Caan


It's insane to think that one of the most influential movies ever—The Godfather—almost got whacked before it was released. Yep, someone nearly gave it the Sonny Corleone treatment, ambushed at the tollbooth and left riddled with bullets. 

But against all odds, the movie managed to come into existence.

The Godfather was adapted from Mario Puzo's smash hit novel of the same title. The producers pegged a young and relatively unknown director, Francis Ford Coppola, to direct the movie—and put him under the constant threat of being fired the entire time. Which almost happened, and if it had, The Godfather wouldn't be the classic we know today. In fact, without Coppola it might not have even been shot in New York and Sicily, where the book was set: the production company actually wanted to set it in Kansas City (source).

We love you, KC, but no. Just no.

Fortunately, everything worked out even better than they could have imagined. One of the greatest actors of all time, Marlon Brando, played the role of Vito Corleone (the Godfather of the title), and one of the unknown actors Coppola cast in the movie morphed into a Hollywood mega-star: Al Pacino. Puzo and Coppola also collaborated together to author the movie's script.

The Godfather was released in 1972 and took the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. (Brando also won for Best Actor, but didn't accept the award. It was claimed by Sacheen Littlefeather to protest the treatment of American Indians.)

It was an instant classic. 

The '70s is actually now considered a great decade for directors: Coppola, along with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, were busy creating some of the greatest movies of all time: Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, Jaws...the list goes on. But arguably, none had a bigger impact than The Godfather.

Its legacy? Well, the vogue for all things Mafia-related stems largely from this one movie (ironically, the word "mafia" is used in The Godfather precisely zero times). Sure, gangster movies had been popular for decades before, but The Godfather changed the nature of the genre. Instead of being a simple tale of tough 'hoods containing a pointed moral, The Godfather created...a mythology.

Read on...or we'll make you an offer you can't refuse.

What is The Godfather About and Why Should I Care?

Watch The Godfather.

If you don't, well, we're not saying you'll wake up with your entire beanie baby collection decapitated. But we're not saying you won't, either.

Listen: The Godfather was ranked the second greatest film of all time (after Citizen Kane) by the American Film Institute. Why?

Check it out:

  • It's an exciting exploration of the American Dream, power, greed, violence, the immigrant experience, Italian-American identity (particularly its negative stereotypes)...should we go on?
  • It's so influential that actual mafia members started to imitate the movie.
  • We wouldn't have most of the mafia movies and TV we have today if it weren't for this sucker (sorry, Sopranos fans).
  • It won a zillion awards and film buffs look to it for its technique.

But beyond all the fancy cinematography and influential characterization, at its core, this movie just asks us what we're willing to do to get by—and how family and society dictate our understanding of what "getting by" even means. What lengths would you go to to protect your family?

The answers lie within you…and how much you value your most prized beanie babies.

Trivia

Surprisingly, the word "mafia" isn't used in The Godfather. Additionally, by pure coincidence, Al Pacino's grandparents actually immigrated from Corleone, Sicily, to America (the same town the Corleones are from). (Source)

No one really used the term "Godfather" to describe a mob boss until Mario Puzo used it in his book. (Source)

Brando wore a mouthpiece made by his dentist to achieve the "bulldog" look he wanted Don Corleone to have. Also, the cat he's petting in the first scene wasn't called for in the script—it was a stray he found on the lot. (Source)

Actor John Marley wasn't informed he would be waking up next to a real horse's head (they got it from a dog food company). His scream of surprise is real. Plus, for Sonny's death scene, James Caan's suit was affixed with 127 fake blood pouches. Also, Caan researched his role by hanging out with actual members of the mafia. (Source)

Barack Obama said The Godfather was his favorite movie of all time. (Source)

Cinematographer Gordon Willis insisted that all shots in the movie should feel like they were coming from a person's point of view. The one exception is the aerial view after Don Corleone is shot in the street. According to Coppola, that scene is from God's point of view. Also, the oranges seen in that shot, and others, signify the threat of imminent death (apparently). (Source)

In Balzac's Le Pere Goriot, the criminal mastermind Vautrin says, "In that case, I will make you an offer that no one would decline." This seems to be the forerunner of The Godfather's "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse." (Source)

The Godfather Resources

Websites

The Godfather Official Website
Nothing quite like an official website, right? It's got that kid-tested, mother-approved feel to it, fully vetted by the authorities. This site includes a video and photo galleries.

The Godfather IMDB Page
The Internet Movie Database fills you in on tons of factoids—technical specs, trivia, quotes, data on cast members. You name it.

The Godfather's Rotten Tomatoes Page
If you want to catch up on the unanimously shining reviews of The Godfather, this is the place.

The Godfather Wiki
This is the page for truly rabid fans. If you want to get into all the minutiae of The Godfather universe, learning about Don Barzini's favorite breakfast foods or whatever, this is the place for you.

Books

The Godfather by Mario Puzo
Here's the novel that started it all. The movie is pretty faithful to the book, but the book fills in lots of details and background info.

The Sicilian by Mario Puzo
This sequel by Puzo (which was never made into a movie) expands on Michael's Sicilian journey, involving a super-mafioso named Salvatore Guiliano.

The Godfather Returns by Mark Winegardner
This is another Godfather novel—one not written by Puzo, but expanding on the modern myth he created.

The Making of the Godfather by Mario Puzo
Puzo gives you an insider's look on the making of the holiday classic Jingle All the Way. Or, wait—we mean, The Godfather.

The Godfather Effect by Tom Santopietro
Santopietro studies The Godfather's massive effect on the culture. The movie even influenced the way actual mafia members started acting (they began to wax philosophical, for one thing).

Book

The Family Corleone by Ed Falco
Even after Mario Puzo died, his spirit lived on. Ed Falco adapted this book from a screenplay Puzo wrote, focusing on the relationship between Vito and his teen son, Sonny.

Articles and Interviews

"In Mob World, Life Often Imitates Art of Marlon Brando's Godfather," by John L. Smith, Las Vegas Review Journal
Smith gives a humorous look at the way mafia men actually started mimicking The Godfather, demonstrating that life frequently imitates art, just as much as art imitates life.

"What is The Godfather Effect?" by Megan Gambino, Smithsonian Magazine
Megan Gambino talks about The Godfather with author Tom Santopietro, delving into the cultural impact of the movie and the way it altered (or distorted) the perception of Italian-American identity.

"The Godfather Wars," by Mark Seal, Vanity Fair
Seal's article discusses the epic clashes between Coppola and his producers in making The Godfather. He also talks about how the actual Mafia tried to intimidate the producers out of making the movie, before finally accepting it.

"Francis Ford Coppola: On Risk, Money, Craft, and Collaboration," by Behance, 99U
Coppola briefly discusses The Godfather and the process of creating it in this interview. He gives props to Brando and mentions how he felt free to depart from the script he'd originally written.

Francis Ford Coppola: "I Don't Have Time to Wait," The Talks
Coppola mentions how The Godfather somehow didn't convince other movie producers to put their faith in him, which made it more difficult to make another film classic, Apocalypse Now. They wouldn't let him do what he wanted, apparently, so he had to do it himself.

Video

The Making of The Godfather Trilogy
This documentary gives a behind the scenes peak into the making of the whole trilogy, not just the first movie.

John Belushi as the Godfather in Therapy
This classic SNL skit anticipates (and maybe inspired) both Analyze This and The Sopranos. (Oh, and Analyze That.) Don Corleone works through his issues with the Tattaglia family by talking to a shrink in a weird group therapy session.

10 Facts About The Godfather
You can find a lot of these in the "Trivia" section, honestly—but this is cool if you prefer video.

Audio

"The Godfather Theme" by Nino Rota
Here it is: that strange, lonely, miraculous trumpet kicking it all off.

"The Godfather Waltz"
Henry Mancini conducts a version of Nino Rota's classic music.

"Film as a Liberal Art: Reading Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather"
For an academic angle on the movie, check out this lecture from St. John's College in Santa Fe.

Images

Brando as Vito Corleone
The man himself, rocking the classic "bulldog" look he perfected for the film (he needed a mouthpiece to make his face look just right).

Spilled Oranges, God's Eye-View
This is the one scene in the movie that deviates from the normal, first-person human perspective. Coppola said that it represents God's perspective as he watches over the assassination attempt on Don Corleone.

Pacino as Michael Corleone
Here's Pacino in his breakthrough role. The producers thought he was too short to play Michael, at first, but he ended up turning in an epic performance.

The Godfather Marionette Logo
This logo obviously symbolizes the fact that the Godfather is himself a puppet-master, controlling the people under him—though he's also trying to battle the puppet-masters who are above him.

James Caan as Sonny Corleone Getting Murdered
Caan, splattered in fake blood, takes a break during the filming of his assassination sequence. You can see the wires and technology at work.

Diane Keaton as Kay Adams
Keaton would reprise her role as Kay in The Godfather Part II. Her most famous comic roles, however, are from classic Woody Allen movies like Annie Hall and Manhattan.

Sterling Hayden as Captain McCluskey (about to Get Shot)
Hayden liked to play tough guys and crooks in movies, but he was actually a successful travel writer and author.

Talia Shire as Connie
Talia Shire—actually Francis Ford Coppola's sister—played the role of the much-mistreated sister in the Corleone Family.