The name "the Godfather" has a symbolic ring to it. Just the word itself, comprising "God" and "Father," seems to say a lot: It conveys power, the sense of a patriarch or maybe of a wrathful deity.
In Christian tradition, godparents are the people who will assume legal guardianship of their godchildren in case the actual parents die. (It's largely an honorary function, nowadays.) In the movie, "The Godfather" is more a guardian of both his literal and symbolic godchildren's interests: He protects them by going around the law, demanding their eternal loyalty. All they have to do is agree to return the favor—by means illegal or legal.
There is something oddly god-like about this relationship, since it bears a similarity to the way an ancient Roman deity might reward his or her devotees in exchange for a sacrifice. The Godfather is a kind of puppet-master too—trying to pull strings that other people are holding (this is depicted in the logo for the film's title, where a hand pulls marionette strings attached to the words).
Interestingly, no one in the mafia called the head Don of a family "Godfather" until after Puzo did it in his book. The head of a mafia family was just called the "boss of the bosses," or capo di tutti capi in Italian.
This is an iconic moment. Jack Woltz wakes up with a horse head in his bed, showing him that the Corleones mean business. Apparently, this forces Woltz to give Johnny Fontane (cough Frank Sinatra cough) a part in a movie that will make him a star, despite his personal distaste for Fontane.
In the years since The Godfather debuted, putting a horse's head in someone's bed has become a widely known meme of sorts—shorthand for making someone an offer they can't refuse, or forcing them to give you something they don't want to give you.
After the Tattaglia family assassinates Luca Brasi, the Corleones' feared hit man, they send a message to the Corleones: a fish wrapped in Brasi's bulletproof vest. The message is clear: He "sleeps with the fishes," meaning that his corpse is weighed down at the bottom of a river (maybe the East River, a historically great place to dump dead bodies).
This needed to be mentioned, since it's effective symbolism. But there's no deeper layer of meaning to it. Puzo's book apparently coined the term, and it has popped up many other places since, like on The Simpsons, where a gangster named Fat Tony mimics classic mob archetypes.
Oranges appear whenever death is in the air: When the Godfather gets shot in the street, he's buying oranges, which scatter on the ground as he falls. When Vito dies at the very end, its while peeling an orange and putting the rind in his mouth to make funny faces at his grandson. Before the horse head shows up in Jack Woltz's bed, we see an orange at the table where he eats dinner with Tom Hagen. Oranges show up at the meeting with the five families, near the mob bosses who will later be whacked.
Why? What's so deathly about oranges?
Who knows? Perhaps it's just an interesting quirk. At least, there are no occult Sicilian associations between oranges and death that we could locate. We can all agree that it's a nice touch, though—and something that makes us side-eye our morning glass of O.J.
At the end of the movie, Michael is literally becoming the godfather to Connie's child while also becoming the Godfather to the Corleone family, sealing his position with blood.
There's a heavy irony in the scene, as Michael stands in church saying that he "renounces Satan and all his works" while a massacre that he ordered progresses in the world outside. It demonstrates the wide chasm between appearance and reality: This churchly dude, renouncing Satan, is actually semi-secretly embracing the world's evil.
This is the scene of Michael's final transformation: He's becoming the thing that he's been trying to be, the Don, the ruler, and it turns out that this is a pretty violent, pretty awful position to hold. He's being baptized, in a way, but it's an evil, anti-spiritual baptism. He's establishing his new identity through murder.
Sure, he's developed some worthy traits—he's cool, competent, and capable of putting business above taking things personally. But those positive traits are put in the service of violence and destruction. Michael is losing his soul, which is, strangely, his triumph.
He's made a strong effort toward becoming damned, becoming the leader of a criminal empire, and he's finally made it. There's something admittedly impressive about him as a villain, since it took so much work.
He's not just following his impulses like a serial killer: He's disciplined. A present-day parallel is Walter White's transformation in the drug kingpin Heisenberg on Breaking Bad.
At the end of the movie, Connie accuses Michael of having her husband, Carlo, murdered. He straightfacedly denies it, even though it's entirely true. He repeats the same lie to his wife Kay, as well. Michael is capable of lying to his loved ones for the sake of his criminal business interests—which is totally cold, but the inevitable result of his journey.
Kay watches as Michael's capos (underling bosses) gather in his office. One of them closes the door, and then the movie ends. This signifies Michael's transformation into ruthless crime lord, sealing Kay outside of his inner world.
He's not the golden, studious war hero with whom she was originally in love. He's gone into a different realm, and the closing door symbolizes that he's fully entered into that new world of wickedness. It's a transformation that required a lot of work, but it's placed him, in the end, in a strange and potentially isolated position.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
When the story begins, Michael is already a capable guy. He's not a wimpy dude who needs to overcome his fears and rise to new heights. In fact, he's a war hero. But the problem is that his family is full of criminals. While Michael was out saving America during WWII, his Mafioso dad was subverting the laws of the land, enriching and aiding himself and his friends. Michael assures his girlfriend, Kay, that that's the way his family acts—but that's not him.
But circumstances force Michael to forsake a legit future in politics or business: The rival Tattaglia family tries to assassinate Don Corleone. In the aftermath, Michael needs to protect his severely wounded father when the hit men try to finish off the job, and gets punched by a corrupt cop, Captain McCluskey, in the process. He realizes he needs to prepare for revenge.
Michael never really refuses the call to adventure. But he does need to summon the courage to do something he's never really done before—commit murder, finishing off Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey as punishment for trying to kill his father.
Michael fought in World War II, but that was a legal and acceptable form of violence, geared toward defeating the Nazis. Now, he has to develop the nerves required to go outside the bounds of the law, in a big way. Fortunately, he's pretty cool and collected by nature.
To some extent, the mentor role is filled by Don Corleone. Of course, Michael's known Don Corleone for his entire life, being his son and all, so he doesn't really meet him at this point—and Vito's mentor role is a little subdued, since he never wanted this life for Michael and only gives him advice later on, after recovering from his assassination attempt.
Clemenza, one of Corleone's main men, helps play the mentor role in this earlier part of the movie, training Michael on how to successfully murder McCluskey and Sollozzo, and also urging him to tell Kay that he loves her.
Michael officially crosses the threshold from All-American war hero to organized crime scion when he blows out McCluskey's and Sollozzo's brains, avenging his father.
Unfortunately, he needs to skip the country, running back to the Old World, Sicily, for safety. The die is cast. After whacking a cop—even a really bad one—there can be no return to normalcy for Michael. He's fully embarked on the gangster's path.
In Sicily, Michael's problems aren't over. Sheltered by a Don who owes his father, Michael needs to travel with bodyguards. He falls in love with the daughter of a local man and courts her in the Old World style before finally marrying her.
Back home, things are getting worse. The five major mafia families are at war, and the Corleones' lives are all at risk. Michael's brother-in-law, Carlo, turns out to be a vicious wife-beater, attacking Michael's sister. Turmoil reins, although Michael's life seems to be going pretty well.
Sonny, while racing to punish Carlo for attacking his sister, is murdered at a toll-booth by a pack of mobsters. (He was set up by Carlo.) Back in Sicily, Michael receives the bad news. Things are looking pretty ominous…
One of Michael's bodyguards, Fabrizio, turns traitor. He plants a car bomb intended for Michael, but it ends up killing Michael's Sicilian wife instead. This is probably Michael's greatest crisis—the life he was building for himself suddenly dissolves completely. After his father makes peace with the other mafia bosses, Michael heads back to America, unsure of what the future will bring.
Michael hooks back up with Kay and becomes the new acting-head of the Corleone family. His father is too old to continue ruling and basically becomes a professor emeritus of crime, while his other brother, Fredo, isn't competent enough to fill the role. It's left to Michael to help the Corleones fight their way back from near-defeat.
Michael has to deal with some significant obstacles as he seizes the reins. People think they can walk all over the Corleones at this point. Their old business associate, Moe Greene, is running a casino that's losing money and he is thinking of signing on with the rival Barzini family.
Fredo is failing to represent the family's interests in Vegas, and they've been forced to accept the Barzini and Tattaglia families' scheme for controlling the drug business. Don Corleone dies from old age, and Tessio, one of Corleone's trusted allies, turns traitor, attempting to set Michael up for assassination. On the bright side, he decides to marry Kay.
Michael resurrects the family, and himself, through blood. On the day of his godchild's christening—the day that he, Michael, is becoming a literal godfather and the Godfather—he launches a massacre, cleaning out all the Corleones' enemies: Tessio, rival dons like Barzini and Tattaglia, Carlo, Moe Greene, and others.
He's succeeded at becoming the cold-hearted criminal he was always secretly suited to be.
At the end of the movie, Connie (Michael's sister) accuses Michael of having her husband killed on the day of their child's christening—when Michael was becoming their baby's godfather. This is totally true, but Michael straightfacedly denies it. He also tells Kay it's not true.
As a criminal/businessman, the dude has become totally impersonal and capable. He can get the job done, and doesn't mind the blood-soaked costs. But that's kind of the point, as his father's capos all gather to pay their respects to Michael, the new Don. So, congratulations, Mike! You're officially a cold-blooded killer.
The Godfather's action is spread over three killer vacation destinations (hey-o!) throughout the course of the late-1940s. First, there's New York City—bright lights, the high life, and mafia hits plotted in seedy backrooms (basically, everything everyone already associates with New York). That's where most of the action is set, along with the Godfather's nearby estate on Long Island.
New York isn't exactly a romantic destination in this movie, however. It's a hardscrabble place where people are riddling each other with bullets. New York demands street-smarts. It's also the place where the mafia's new business is taking hold—drug-dealing. NYC represents the claims of this scary, expanding modern world. It's the realm that Vito and Michael learn how to navigate as the story progresses.
Then, there's Sicily. Sicily is the Old Country, standing in contrast to New York. New York seems to be full of corrupt cops and gangsters, but Sicily is the kind of place with traditions and age-old customs (and gangsters—they're everywhere, apparently).
Michael courts his Sicilian wife by essentially dating her and her family. That's obviously not the way it would work in New York. But his pleasant idle ends there, when the mob murders his wife. The violence of NYC intrudes on his peaceful country lifestyle, and Michael has to re-enter the more brutal world.
Finally, there's Vegas. Michael doesn't really spend that much time in Vegas—just enough to talk smack to Moe Greene—but it's another place that, like New York, represents the modern world that Michael needs to face down and take over.
He needs to bring the Corleones into the second half of the 20th century, dominating the casino industry that's rising in Vegas and preventing Barzini and Greene from getting the best of him. His preferred tool? Bullets.
Also, it's important not to forget the micro-settings—the placement and significance of individual scenes. Take the opening wedding scene, for example: You have people laughing and dancing outside, and then you have the secret, criminal world of the Don going on inside his office.
By switching back and forth between these two worlds, Coppola and Puzo demonstrate how this little mafia cosmos functions: On the outside, the Corleones are just like every other happy family, but on the inside, dark and shady dealings are going down.
The Godfather (unlike The Godfather Part II) doesn't use any flashbacks and it doesn't delve into a bunch of seemingly unrelated subplots that converge to some degree. But it does have a kind of narrative break.
When Michael heads off to Sicily, his story diverges from the main narrative. He lives a separate and radically distinct life, much different from what he'd had back in New York and with Kay Adams. But when a bomb blows his Sicilian wife to smithereens, he realizes that he's been called back to New York and his former life. Then, his story rejoins the main narrative.
The early sequence with the movie producer and the horse's head is a bit of a disjunction too. It's kind of like a short story nestled within the greater story, or a prologue to the rest of the movie. It's not entirely unrelated to the rest of the action, since it demonstrates what Don Corleone is willing to do to help his kin out, but it's also different enough to be worth mentioning.
The Godfather is a family drama because it doesn't just deal with a mafia "family," but with an actual family, the Corleones. We get to see how their conflicts and struggles all play out: which brother will succeed the patriarch when he dies, how they'll handle the family business, how their marriages and relationships will work out.
We learn that Connie's husband beats her and we see Michael's first wife literally explode; we discover that Fredo is feckless and that Sonny is a cheater. The Corleones don't just have extreme crime problems—they have common, everyday problems as well.
Secondly, The Godfather is a gangster film because it involves… gangsters. But it's more than just street-toughs making a bid for more money. It depicts the mafia as an illicit business enterprise, intertwined with the destiny of America itself, while commenting on the dark side of the American Dream.
This set the pattern for later mob movies like Goodfellas and TV series like The Sopranos. It elevated the gangster movie from being a relatively simple cops-and-robbers thing into the sort of epic that might involve Roman emperors.
Finally, The Godfather has to do with the experience of immigrants—though it's not a very accurate portrayal of the Italian-American experience, since the vast majority of Italian-Americans weren't involved with the mafia (a negative stereotype). But the parts of it that don't involve killing people speak to the broader themes of struggling to find your place in a new land and figuring out how to negotiate the family business and get by.
Most people don't murder their personal enemies—but a lot of people do struggle with trying to retain Old World traditions and keep the past alive in modern America. The Godfather Part II would make this theme even more obvious, depicting Vito's trials and travails as a young immigrant.
"The Godfather" isn't just a person who agrees to act as a substitute father in the event of a child's parents' death, as stated during a Christian baptism—though it is that too. It's a term for a mafia Don (invented by Mario Puzo) and a symbol.
The Godfather is a total authority: The mafia doesn't operate as a democracy, but a monarchy, with all the intrigues and rebellions that this involves. So The Godfather is about one man, Vito, trying to retain that position in order for one of his sons to succeed him. It's almost a Shakespearean historical play, like Henry IV (except without Falstaff's comic relief).
You can take the title to refer to either Michael or Vito: Michael ascends to the throne, while Vito gradually lets it go. The meaning of the title, and what it represents, changes too. Vito is more of an old-school Don, unwilling to deal drugs. Michael recognizes that he needs to use unbridled ruthlessness to get ahead and stave off his enemies. At the same time, the Godfather isn't just a criminal: He's someone who tries to preserve an Old World idea of order within the New World. The movie chronicles the history of that attempt.
We have just one word for the end of The Godfather.
Here's what's happening. (If you haven't seen it, just watch it. Words just...cannot describe.) Michael is presiding over the baptism of his sister's child. Church music is blasting. Religious imagery is everywhere.
...And a bunch of people are getting brutally murdered.
The scene cuts between Michael in church, hypocritically renouncing the devil, and scenes of all the murders he's ordered.
We finally get to see what Michael's become and, while it may be impressive, it's definitely not...good.
He's gone from being a war hero and a potential politician or legitimate businessman to being one of the greatest criminals in America, a man who will stop at nothing to support his mafia family's interests.
It's official: he's fully traveled the length of the anti-hero's journey (see our section on that for more details).
At the very end of the movie, Michael lies to his wife, Kay, about having Carlo killed. This shows that he's set his course: she won't be able to be a part of his real world and will be shut out from seeing his true, ruthless nature in action.
When Michael's capos gather in his office, the door shuts on Kay, ending the movie. It symbolizes the fact that Michael will try to be simultaneously wicked and a loving family man—living an unlivable contradiction. Kay is stuck in the difficult position of loving a man who does evil deeds in secret and locks her out of his actual reality.
Enter: The Godfather Part II.
The Godfather has lots of murder and a decent helping of sex… but it's really much heavier on the murder. Sonny cheats on his wife and sneaks off to have sex during the wedding, and there's brief nudity when Michael gets it on with his Sicilian wife, Apollonia, on their wedding night. Those scenes push the movie into R territory.
But the biggest, most shocking scenes involve Sonny's extremely bloody assassination, Carlo brutally beating Connie with his belt, Luca Brasi's strangulation, and the mass killing ordered by Michael at the end.