Coppola’s Trilogy Explores Organized Crime

Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy—which traced the history of a fictional crime family based on real American Mafiosi—explored violence and corruption in politics, business, and religion, becoming some of the most critically acclaimed films of all time and capturing a part of American society previously unexamined in mainstream media.

Summary of Event

The trilogy of films that begins with The Godfather, which premiered in New York City on March 15, 1972, tells an epic tale of one immigrant family’s sojourn in America. The characters take on mythic proportions as their deeds assume national and international dimensions. Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Francis Ford Coppola[Coppola]
Mafia;motion pictures
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Francis Ford Coppola[Coppola]
Mafia;motion pictures
Coppola, Francis Ford
Puzo, Mario
Brando, Marlon
Pacino, Al
De Niro, Robert
Shire, Talia
Duvall, Robert

The Godfather opens in 1945, as Connie, the daughter of Don Vito Corleone, the “Godfather,” is being wed to Carlo Rizzi. Her brother Michael, who has not been involved in his father’s criminal organization, has brought his girlfriend, Kay Adams, to the wedding. The Godfather receives well-wishers, some with requests for help. Singer Johnny Fontane wants the Godfather to coerce producer Jack Woltz to cast him in a war film. Tom Hagen is dispatched to make Woltz “an offer he can’t refuse.” The next morning Woltz wakes up to find the bloody head of his favorite horse in bed with him, and Fontane gets the part.

Later, the Godfather is visited by a gangster named Sollozzo, who wants the Corleones to join the other crime families in trafficking narcotics. Vito refuses on grounds that his political allies would desert him, but his eldest son and successor, Sonny, blunders by revealing that he would make the deal. Rivals order Vito to be killed. He takes five bullets, but survives.

On a visit to the hospital one evening, Michael finds that the police have set his father up for a second assassination attempt. He deftly thwarts the attempt, saving his father’s life but enraging the corrupt Police Captain McCluskey, who personally breaks Michael’s jawbone. Michael decides to join the underworld.

Hot-tempered Sonny lashes out at the other families. Michael calmly plots his revenge. A meeting is arranged for Sollozzo, McCluskey, and Michael, supposedly to work out a truce. Michael, however, uses a pistol planted at the site to shoot both men dead.

He escapes to his ancestral home in Sicily, where he meets and marries the beautiful Apollonia. His enemies discover his whereabouts and plant a bomb in his car, which explodes, killing Apollonia. Years later, back in the United States, he marries Kay.

Meanwhile, Sonny is betrayed by Rizzi and brutally murdered. Vito makes peace with the other families and turns his organization over to Michael shortly before dying a natural death. Michael orchestrates the murder of his enemies, including Rizzi, to take place while he stands in church as godfather to Connie’s baby. Later, Connie accuses him of killing her husband, and Kay demands to know if he did. Michael tells her he did not, but before the door is closed on her, Kay sees henchmen kneeling to kiss Michael’s hand and call him “Godfather.”

The Godfather: Part II, released in 1974, goes backward and forward in time. Almost an hour is spent in flashbacks to Vito’s youth, both in Sicily, where he sees his family murdered by a Mafia chieftain and to which he later returns to take revenge, and in New York, where he rids the neighborhood of its overbearing mob boss and organizes his own Robin Hood gang.

In 1958, Senator Geary thanks Michael for a large donation to a university by insulting his ethnicity and trying to overcharge him for a casino license. Michael refuses to be squeezed. He also refuses Frankie Pentangeli’s request for permission to rub out rival gangsters in New York; the rivals are associated with Jewish gangster Hyman Roth, a potential partner. Pentangeli complains that the family has grown less Sicilian. Then, mysteriously, someone tries to gun Michael down in his bedroom.

Al Pacino (left) and Marlon Brando in a scene from The Godfather.

(Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive)

Michael tries to discover which insider betrayed him. In Miami, Roth agrees that Pentangeli should be killed. In New York, Pentangeli insists on killing Roth. Actually, Michael’s weak brother Fredo had been manipulated by Roth’s men, who proceed to subvert Pentangeli’s loyalty by nearly killing him and making him think they work for Michael.

Michael meets Roth in Cuba, discovers Fredo’s perfidy, and escapes as rebels topple the government. Troubles mount. To avoid indictment, Michael perjures himself at Senate hearings and kidnaps Pentangeli’s brother to silence testimony against him. Kay abandons him, confessing that she has had an abortion to end “this Sicilian thing.”

Mama Corleone’s funeral brings the family together again. Yet the second film, too, ends with Michael shutting the door on Kay and carrying out a series of killings, including those of Fredo, Roth, and Pentangeli, who opts for suicide.

The Godfather: Part III, which premiered in Beverly Hills, California, on December 20, 1990, shows Michael twenty years later as a King Lear whose family is splintering. Son Anthony rejects his world for a career in opera. Kay lingers as a nagging reproach, yet he has no new love interest. Wanting to keep his daughter, Mary (played by Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter, Sofia Coppola), innocent, he alienates her by forbidding her to see Vincent, Sonny’s illegitimate son, the only young man with the steel to carry on as Godfather.

Michael wants to make the family legitimate by investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Vatican bank and a multinational real estate company. The higher he goes, however, the more crooked things get. Finally, he is swindled by European financiers, who poison the pope to ruin Michael’s deal.

Vincent loyally protects Michael from enemies: insubordinate enforcer Joey Zasa (whose ear he nearly bites off in one scene), old friend Don Altobello, and Sicilian boss of bosses Don Lucchese. Having evaded attempts on his life, including a helicopter assault on a penthouse in Atlantic City, and having settled scores with another series of killings, Michael is broken when Mary dies in his arms, wounded by a bullet meant for him. The film ends with Vincent the new Godfather and Michael slumped in peaceful death.


The Godfather was a record-breaking event in publishing and motion-picture history. Mario Puzo’s novel stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for sixty-seven weeks; Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation shattered box-office records and swept the major Academy Awards. The saga had an immediate and solid impact on American society. Seldom has the public imagination bonded so firmly with a film. For months after its release, one could hardly get through a day without hearing jokes about “an offer he can’t refuse.” The effects were felt by subsequent films, critics, the film industry itself, and society at large.

By exploring links among government, the Catholic Church, and world finance, the trilogy injected a vein of seriousness into the gangster film genre. It also fueled the modern craze for sequels. Many films showed its direct influence, including John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor (1985), Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990), and Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983), written by Coppola. The Godfather was spoofed in Andrew Bergman’s The Freshman (1990), Freshman, The (film) in which Marlon Brando himself delivered a withering parody of the role he made famous.

Critics have accounted for the saga’s mass appeal by interpreting it as a mythic metaphor of America, a story that explains simply how a complex nation works. The opening line, “I believe in America,” is spoken by Amerigo Bonasera, disgusted with American courts, who comes to the Godfather for justice. The films were released at a time when many people were growing cynical about politics. The Watergate scandal was simultaneously revealing the reach of criminality into the highest levels of government. Many found in Coppola’s films an explanation of the ways money and power work in America.

Michael’s perpetual frustration in trying to make the Corleone family legitimate indicts American capitalism; gangsterism becomes a metaphor for business. The Corleones’ wealth cannot be disentangled from crime any more than business profits can be decoupled from underpaying labor and overcharging consumers. As Don Lucchese tells Vincent, “Power wears out those that don’t have it.” Especially in the two sequels, Michael finds that gangsters’ exploitation of vice is small potatoes compared with the corrupt machinations of politicians and financiers, supposedly respectable people, who prey on church and state.

The changing character of Michael Corleone reflects the agonies of America. His innocent youth ends when police conspire with crooks to kill his father. As he assumes the mantle of power and grows ever more prosperous, his ideals are compromised, the ethnicity of his family is diluted, and his soul sinks into a mire of political corruption, moral decay, and internecine violence. In Part III, he sags with remorse and regret, his fundamental goodness washed away by lying and vengeance, his achievements mocked by his wife and heirs. He tries to purchase respectability and to dictate world affairs with his financial clout only to be swindled.

The Godfather trilogy may be viewed in several ways: as a gangster story, a mystery thriller, a period piece, an ethnic study, or a social commentary. Critics have complained that the series romanticizes criminals, as gangster films tend to do. The violence, however, has hardly been hidden from view in several memorable scenes: Michael putting bullet holes into the forehead and neck of the police captain, blood gushing out of an eyesocket through a shattered eyeglass lens, Sonny’s macabre dance of death to the riveting of machine-gun fire, Vito placing the muzzle of his gun in Fannuci’s mouth, the helicopter attack in Atlantic City. Coppola complained that people pitied the decapitated horse more than the human victims of violence.

Unlike most gangster films, the trilogy celebrates the domestic life and ethnicity of its characters. There are good bad guys and bad bad guys. Vito is a loving father; he is seen celebrating his daughter’s wedding, playing with his grandson in the garden, and doing the Christmas shopping. His business is depicted as the doing of favors for friends and the correction of social injustice; he even rejects the narcotics trade. Gangsters are neither stereotyped nor demonized, and so the public sympathized with their home life, loyalty, and Sicilian honor.

The Godfather films were popular with a number of American ethnic groups, even though some characters were overtly racist and the films include no black actors. Somehow, the films appealed to all fragments of a society split asunder. Part II particularly explores the family’s European roots with a respect for ethnicity rare in gangster movies. Vito’s rich ethnic past is contrasted with Michael’s loss of ethnicity, family, and soul.

The Godfather saga speaks to a society whose ideals have been weakened by ethnic warfare, assassinations, political corruption, and the disintegration of families. The Corleone family, in its successes and failures, mirrors the fate of nations and peoples in the New World. Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Francis Ford Coppola[Coppola]
Mafia;motion pictures

Further Reading

  • Browne, Nick, ed. Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” Trilogy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Six essays examine The Godfather trilogy, Coppola’s technique, and Hollywood politics surrounding the film.
  • Chown, Jeffrey. Hollywood Auteur: Francis Coppola. New York: Praeger, 1988. A thorough and scholarly examination of Coppola’s career, film by film, from 1967’s You’re a Big Boy Now through 1987’s Gardens of Stone. Coppola is portrayed as the central figure in a new Hollywood era dominated by directors who learned how to make films in college. Includes an annotated bibliography and extensive footnotes.
  • Hess, John. “Godfather II: A Deal Coppola Couldn’t Refuse.” In Movies and Methods: An Anthology, edited by Bill Nichols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. An incisive review of The Godfather, Part II that interprets the film as a Marxist critique of American capitalism. Hess considers human relations in the film in four areas: family, friendships, church, and ethnic group. Then he shows how each is broken down by the needs of capitalism, as symbolized in the film by gangsterism.
  • Johnson, Robert K. Francis Ford Coppola. Boston: Twayne, 1977. A balanced criticism of Coppola’s early films, with a brief chronology of his life, an annotated bibliography of sources, photographic stills from the films, and a filmography. Matter relating to The Godfather draws heavily on The Godfather Papers. Johnson considers The Godfather a fine gangster film but criticizes it for its romanticized departures from the real underworld.
  • Phillips, Gene D. Godfather: The Intimate Francis Ford Coppola. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004. Thoroughly researched and arguably the most definitive biography of Coppola to date.
  • Puzo, Mario. The Godfather. New York: Putnam, 1969. The book on which the films were based. The Corleones are less romanticized in the novel, which has more graphic sex and violence than the films. Of special interest to anyone who wants to assess Coppola’s departures from his source. Puzo believes corruption can benefit society; Coppola’s attitude toward the powerful and corrupt is more angry.
  • _______. The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions. New York: Putnam, 1972. A collection of essays on immigrants, writers, criminals, and the making of the book and the film. Interesting for personal details: how the studio was against casting Brando and Pacino, how studio executives cut out the final, crucial scene, how Puzo wrote from research without actually knowing any Mafiosi, and how Coppola did not like the book at first.
  • Silver, Isidore. “All in the Mafia Family: The Godfather.” In Film in Society, edited by Arthur Asa Berger. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1980. An attempt to explain the films’ wide appeal. Silver complains that the film has sanitized, falsified, and glorified the Mafia. He concludes that the story is popular because many Americans have given up on constructive social cooperation, abandoned the values of the welfare state, and regressed to uncivilized modes of life.
  • Zuker, Joel S. Francis Ford Coppola: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. A scholarly account of Coppola’s life and work. Biographical information, an annotated bibliography, a synopsis of each film with credits, and a critical survey of Coppola’s achievement are included, with a useful index. Contains cogent summaries of many reviews from popular periodicals.

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