Foundations: The Godfather (1972)

Ojez!  Ojez! The members of the Order of the Disgruntled Camel, draw near and take heed!   Welcome to another Hump Day.  It’s a beautiful, sunny day in the darkest jungles of Appalachia, and I have spent my morning writing my little fingers plumb off.  And I have more to go! But first, I couldn’t push on without giving to you, my loyal readers, another treasury of my thoughts on the world of Dieselpunk, Steampunk and New Pulp.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about some Foundation media.  What I mean by that are movies, books, TV shows and music that are not Steampunk/Dieselpunk/Pulp themselves, but they are seminal works that inform the genres.  Some of the foundations I would like to hit are penny dreadfuls (the 19th century’s answer to pulp fiction, not the HBO series, though we’ll be talking about that eventually), the TV show Wild Wild West, the works of H.G Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson, early comic strips and comic books, and like that.  Any suggestions?

Okay, first up:  The Godfather movies.

The Godfather

The Godfather, was made in 1972, by director Francis Ford Coppola, and starring the legendary Marlon Brando in the title role, and Al Pacino, then a relatively newcomer to the movie world.  The story, set in the years between 1945 and 1950, follows the Corleone family, father Vito (Brando), his three sons Santino (James Caan), Fredo (John Cazale) and Michael (Pacino), his daughter Constanzia (Talia Shire), plus one adopted son-cum-consiglieri Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall) as they try to live their lives under the shadow of the Mafia. The movie, and its sequels are based on the book of the same name by Mario Puzo, which was an enormously successful bestseller (and a good read; I recommend it highly)

Vito Corleone is the founder and current Godfather, or leader, of the Corleone Crime family.  He owns land, businesses all over New York City, he has politicians, cops and businessmen on his payroll.  In short, the Corleones are the most powerful of the Five Families, the various mobs that rule the state, and possible the country.  Santino (known as Sonny to practically everybody) is the heir apparent to his father’s position, despite his being a womanizer and a hothead.  Fredo, the middle son, is a sweet, weak man, unsuited to the life he was born to, and therefore shunted aside.  Michael, the youngest, and our hero, is the smartest of the boys, the one best suited to follow in his father’s footsteps.  But the problem is that he hates the Mafia, he hates the way his father earns his money and power, and has gone out of his way to buck the expectations of his father; he went against the family to go to college, to join the army during WWII, and now is seriously dating Kay (Diane Keaton) a Protestant and non-Italian.  The story starts at the wedding of Constanzia to sleazy creep Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo).

Interesting note:  when they were shooting this movie, they had a lot of contact with real mafiosi.  There’s a famous bit where hitman Luca Brasi gives this awkward speech of congratulations for Constanzia’s marriage.  This was played by a man named Lenny Montana, a former pro wrestler turned enforcer, arsonist and bodyguard for the REAL Mafia, specifically the Columbo Family.  As soon as the producers saw him, they had to have him in the movie.  The awkwardness of his little speech was not put on; Montana was so terrified to be playing opposite the great Marlon Brando that he couldn’t give them a clean take.  Coppola actually changed the script so he could leave the clumsy take intact, explaining it away as Luca Brasi being overwhelmed at the honor of being invited to the wedding.

Anyway, the wedding introduces most of the characters and establishes everybody’s relationships to one another.  But meat of the story involves heroin smuggling/dealing.  Seems there’s this new player in town, Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) who is the best at this heroin business.  He and his backers in the Tattaglia crime family want Corleone to come into the business with them, bringing his political clout to bear to keep the cops off the operation.  Corleone refuses, and this is not well received.  They try to strong-arm the family into cooperating, mostly by shooting Vito.  This leads to full on war.  Michael wants to stay away from it, but gets pulled in, and eventually ends up assassinating The Turk.  Things escalate from there, Michael flees the country, Santino dies, Vito recovers, there’s a lot of deaths, and the Corleone Family nearly gets eaten by the other families.  I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but in short, Michael reluctantly ends up in his father’s place as Godfather, and not only taking charge, but doing so in a bloodbath that consolidates his power and confirms him as a man every bit as cold and ruthless as his father.

When I was in school, we talked about the classic definition of a tragedy.  To wit, a classic tragedy is where a man has is given a choice, and, even knowing it’s wrong, he is bound by his own flaws to choose the path to self-destruction.  The Godfather is practically a primer in the classic tragedy.  Michael knows joining the mafia is bad, and he doesn’t want to do it.  But step by step he digs himself in a little deeper, until finally it’s too late, and he can’t get out.

In case you’re interested, and have also been living under a rock for the last thirty years, there are two sequels to this movie.  The Godfather Part II, made in 1974, follows Michael deeper into the Mafia and his personal path of self-destruction; the tragedy pays off as his role in the Corleone family ends up destroying his family, his marriage and everything he holds dear.  Many consider it to be a better movie than the first; it won 7 Academy Awards and made a small fortune.  The third movie, The Godfather Part III came out in 1990.  I didn’t like this movie, so I’m not going to say anything nice about it.

BTW:  if you’re a diehard fan like me, or a newbie wanting to know more, check out the Godfather Wiki.

Okay, so what does this have to do with Dieselpunk and New Pulp?  I mean, movies about The Mafia and organized crime in general have been around almost as long as movies themselves. What makes The Godfather so special?

What makes The Godfather so special is that it was special.  Before Puzo, the Mafia was different.  It wasn’t nearly as well organized as it appears in the books and movies.   Al Capone didn’t run his organization the way Vito Corleone did, with capos and families and soldiers.  Mafiosi were thugs; thugs working together to powerful results, yes, but still thugs, uneducated, violent, and mostly unsophisticated.  In many cases, they were organized as haphazardly as your average youth street gang.  What Puzo — and later Coppola — did was romanticize and glamorize the Mafia.  He took a bunch of thugs and dressed them up in college degrees and nice suits and pinky rings and gave them tragedy, romance, and pathos.  No, mafiosi aren’t mouth-breathing bullies, pimps and killers; they’re sophisticated, noble men, more Robin Hood than Charlie Manson.  He made them look good.  And the Mafia noticed, don’t think they didn’t.  They began to shape their individual behaviors and their group dynamics so that it mirrored what they saw in the movies.  And why not?  Everybody wants to look and feel more glamorous and romantic, even thugs.

And, more importantly, the movies shaped the way the public perceived the Mafia.  Look at me:  I’m a granny from the darkest jungles of Appalachia.  The closest thing I’ve seen to a Sicilian is the kid named Tony who sat in front of me in 7th grade algebra (last name was O’Leary or O’Pell, something O’Irish, so there goes the Italian angle); I wouldn’t know a genuine mafiosi if he bit me on the caboose.  What I know of the Mafia is what I’ve read in books and seen in the movies.  And the movie that is the shining diamond, the movie by which all other mob movies are judged?  The Godfather.

The Mob figures largely in a not-insignificant proportion of Dieselpunk and New Pulp stories.  It only stands to reason that The Godfather would influence how the Mafia is depicted in those stories.  Writers and artists are as much influenced by popular culture as anybody else.  And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  Vaguely organized street thugs, while dangerous and scary, just don’t have the same level of threat for our heroes as a carefully orchestrated, Machiavellian Mafia does.  Bullies and pimps don’t have the sweeping scope or the tragic romance of a Corleone type organization, no matter how criminal.  The influence of the Godfather enriches our new stories of the Pulp world, and we are better off for it.

And that’s it from me.  You know the drill:  comment, tweet ,share, email if you have something to share for Fun Friday.  Next up is, well, I just said it:  Fun Friday.   Until then, be good, and if you can’t be good, don’t get caught!

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Categories: books, Dieselpunk, Foundation media, History, Pulp, Video | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Foundations: The Godfather (1972)

  1. Greetings from the professor! How are you this fine morning?

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