As a box office smash, with three Oscars, universal critical acclaim, and a place at the top of countless “greatest” lists, over four decades after its release The Godfather is viewed as the gold-standard of American cinema. Its sequel didn’t fare too badly either, gaining double the Oscars of the original and a general acknowledgement as being the greatest sequel ever made. So then, what’s it all about?
The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are about a great many things, which is largely what makes them so revered. Yet many of the duo’s themes can be uncovered by asking a fairly straightforward question: why does the intelligent “war hero” son of Don Corleone choose the path he does?
The Godfather films are not just about an American crime family – they are about a Sicilian crime family living in America. The assimilation of immigrants into American society is heavily present in both films. In Part I, the ailing Vito tells Michael, who by this point has almost entirely taken control of the “business”, that he always hoped Michael would become a lawyer or a senator, something respectable, that he would find success in the American world, rather than the illegal successes found by many Italian-Americans in the Mafia. We are reminded of the hope carried by immigrants that they will succeed legitimately in America at the start of the second film’s flashback timeline. The young Vito arrives in America, alone and wide-eyed at the possibilities this foreign land offers. The American Dream is right before his and our eyes. The poor Sicilian kid with nothing to his name can succeed just like anyone else in this land of opportunity. However, as the film points out in its very existence, it doesn’t quite work like that.
For young Vito, gaining immense power and wealth legitimately was never really an option. He tries the law-abiding small-business owner route, but is thwarted by an older, more powerful crook who has rather less respectful of the law. The truth of the matter perhaps becomes clear to Vito rather quickly. He, like most poor Italian-Americans, is faced with a choice between Mafia power and Eddie Carbone-style daily toil on the docks. As we all know, Vito chose the latter.
His son Michael, having money and acknowledgement as a “war hero” behind him, had a slightly rosier outlook. However, he’s born into a criminal empire that, despite what he promises his wife Kay late on in Part I, will likely never become “fully legitimate”. So Michael’s choice then is between following in his father’s footsteps and heading up a Mafia family, or getting away from it all and having a shot at that legitimate success his father hoped of. So why does Michael choose the former?
A big part of it may be the fact that he sees the possibility of becoming a lawyer or a senator as unachievable; just look at the disgust with which a corrupt WASP senator treats these “greasy haired wops”. Are men like this really going to let Michael become part of their “legitimate” institutions? Men like the senator and the equally corrupt police officer McCluskey put Michael off. But why not slip into the aforementioned blue-collar obscurity and get away from all the violence, corruption and greed?
Well, money talks. So does power. Michael has his eye turned by the wealth and authority that being the head of the family offers him. He sees the opportunity to be successful and make money in America, hence achieving capitalism-driven assimilation. Only, coming from where he has, he has to use violence to do so. Michael’s transformation throughout the two films is typical of the corruption and tendency to be consumed by power that some see as inherent in succeeding at the game of capitalism. Legal or illegal, the ruthlessness he shows in Part II can be the most efficient way of making money, bringing into play the classic clash between morals and self-interest.
The other reason Michael takes the path he does is the feeling of family honour that is inherent in him, due to being part of a close-knit Mafia family. Old Don Vito stresses on more than one occasion that family is of the utmost importance. After an attempt on his father’s life, and once his less calculating, more aggressive older brother Sonny has been gunned down, Michael feels compelled to succeed Vito. At the heart of the Godfather films is a passing from father to son, not to accept this power and responsibility would make Michael a coward in his own eyes. The Godfather Part II shifts the focus more to this father-son dynamic. Despite Marlon Brando never appearing on screen his presence is felt immensely. Part II is so great because the sweeping ambition Coppola shows in staging Vito’s rise alongside the continuation of Michael’s story not only makes for a great sequel, it somehow enhances the first film at the same time.
We never see any innocent civilians die in either film, nor do we see the effects of gambling, drugs, and prostitution. We are invited, as the late, great Roger Ebert said, “to judge the Mafia on their own terms”. Their brutality does not bother us because the films are not about that. These men are in this life for one reason or another. We are to judge them in comparison to each other and that is exactly what Part II does with its dual-timeline structure. Robert de Niro’s young Vito’s rise to the top still has some moral grounding to it; he deals in exchanges – a favour for a favour, a life for a life. However as Michael becomes ever more gripped by power he treats death increasingly lightly. From the moment he kills Sollozzo and McCluskey in the first film he becomes colder and colder as time goes on. Alarm bells ring when he shuts out his wife and kids and has his brother Fredo killed; he has broken Vito’s golden rule. While Vito always remained a giant, respected presence, Michael has become despicable even in this world; his dead stare at the end of Part II says it all.
Despite the callous way in which Michael treats other human lives, we feel some sympathy for him. In the second film’s flashback epilogue he sits apart from the rest of the family having announced he is joining the army and at the saga’s opening wedding scene he tells Kay, “that’s my family, not me.” He has tried to distance himself from a violent family but this separation is what we ultimately hate him for. He has been brought up in a violent world by violent people. Vito starts the violent trend of the Corleone family, but he has his limits. Michael’s storyline can be seen as a continuation of Vito’s journey through the temptations and moral pitfalls that the Mafia brings; he’s just unfortunate to be at the end of this transformation, leaving him the monster and Vito the respected Don.
We must ask ourselves, wouldn’t anyone meet the same fate if they were born in Michael’s position? The puppet master’s strings have become synonymous with the Godfather films and if Part II tells us anything, it is that Michael is the puppet, manipulated by his various masters – power, wealth and violence.