Leave the Remote, Take the Popcorn: The Magic of ‘The Godfather’

An analysis of some of the attributes that have made the classic film, ‘The Godfather’ so enduring.


Kellen Knight

‘The Godfather’ film, inspired by a book of the same name, spawned a series with two additional movies. ‘The Godfather Part II’ was released two years later, in 1974, and ‘The Godfather Part III ‘was released eighteen years after the original, in 1990.

If you asked 100 people what the best movie ever made is, half would say The Godfather. In all honesty, this is just conjecture, and I do not actually know what the number would be. What I do know is that it is the second highest rated movie on all of IMDb with a rating of 9.2 stars, second only to The Shawshank Redemption. It has a 97% critic score on RottenTomatoes, and a 98% audience score, with over 250,000+ audience ratings.

The 1972 film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, stars Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone, the Don of the Corleone family, his sons Michael, Santino “Sonny,” and Frederico “Fredo,” adopted son Tom Hagen, and his daughter Constanzia “Connie.”

It is a staple of pop culture. I remember seeing a poster with a picture of Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone, with text saying “I’m going to make you a pizza you can’t refuse” at a local pizza place, long before I had seen the film.

The Godfather was released only four years after the end of the Hays Code and the implementation of the MPAA rating system, which I have written about previously. 

The story follows the business of the Corleones over ten years and their conflicts with rival mob families. In the beginning, Al Pacino’s character, Michael, did not want anything to do with his family’s business. He was a mild man, the youngest son of Vito, and a World War II veteran. He had a non-Italian girlfriend named Kay who did not want him to live like his family. They were both outsiders, and Michael said it would stay that way. After telling her a story about dirty business that his family had conducted, Michael assured her, “That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.”  

Over the course of the film, Michael’s nobility crumbles. His attempts to protect his family drag him into the role of a criminal. By the end of the film, Michael is in control of the family: he is the Don, the godfather. In one scene late in the movie, he tells his brother “Fredo… you’re my older brother, and I love you, but don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.” This is radically different from his attitude at the beginning of the film. The film ends with Michael telling Kay that he will allow her one opportunity to ask about his business. When she asks her question, he lies to her.

My brief explanation centers on Michael, but the character of Vito Corleone is iconic. In fact, Marlon Brando was nominated for Best Actor at the 45th Academy Awards, while Al Pacino was only nominated for Best Supporting Actor, along with James Caan and Robert Duvall, who played his brothers Sonny and Tom. Both Brando and Pacino boycotted the ceremony; it was an Oscar they could refuse.

Brando won Best Actor, but declined it in protest of Hollywood portrayal of Native Americans, and Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache activist, spoke in his absence. On the other hand, Pacino boycotted the ceremony because he was upset about his nomination for Best Supporting Actor rather than Best Actor. Whether Vito or Michael or both were the leading role in The Godfather is a difficult question, but everyone, no matter the size of their role, delivered outstanding performances in the film. 

It is hard to believe that you are watching fictional characters. This was the result of artistic, directorial vision — the studio tried adamantly to replace Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, and even the director, Francis Ford Coppola himself. Thankfully, they were not successful, and Al Pacino, along with the rest of the main cast and crew, received major boosts to their careers from it.

The film is nearly three hours long. Despite this, it is not boring, and never too slow. While it is not exactly a thrill ride, it does not overstay its welcome, and nor does it feel like three hours. It is packed with great dialogue, written by Mario Puzo (the author of the 1969 novel of the same name) and Francis Ford Coppola. The screenplay is essentially a second revision of the book, shaving off unnecessary plot points and strengthening the core of the story. Its quotability cannot be overstated.

It has a beautiful soundtrack, composed by Nino Rota. I have heard Love Theme from ‘The Godfather, arguably the most recognizable piece from the film, played on violin by performers in subway cars. The music is iconic and goes perfectly with the cinematography and set design to create an atmosphere you can almost taste. I should also note that I have found it quite pleasant to listen to as work music, while writing this article. 

For the Academy Awards, Nino Rota’s score was nominated for Best Original Dramatic Score, bringing the total number of nominations for The Godfather to eleven. This was reduced to ten after this nomination was revoked, because Rota used the love theme in a previous film. However, it still won Best Film Music at the 26th British Academy Film Awards, Best Original Score at the 30th Golden Globe Awards, and Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or TV Special at the 15th Grammy Awards.

The film is not only unique in its outstanding quality, but in its content as well. As I alluded to earlier, this film could not have been made just a few years prior. It is based on the 1969 novel The Godfather, which Mario Puzo published only a year after the end of the Hays Code, which censored films that did not adhere to a specific set of guidelines. Films could not corrupt the moral character of the viewers, so films had to show all criminals being punished, and they could not be treated with sympathy or portrayed in a positive light. The Godfather is an offender on these accounts. 

It was different from gangster films of the past because it humanized mobsters. It gave them personalities, motivations, families, complex characters that were not really highlighted before. It also centered the mafia movie in the Italian-American experience. It introduced into mafia movies a “respect” for criminals. 

The criminals were the people for whom you wanted to root. Maybe most importantly, The Godfather focused on the family; this theme would be adopted by countless mafia movies in the years to follow. Michael’s transformation sees him come to prioritize the family over all else, maybe the only exception being himself.

The Godfather is a movie that is difficult for many people, and nearly impossible for me, to turn off. It is in many ways miraculous, as the production was a constant uphill battle for Coppola and the actors against the studio who thought it would go nowhere.

The Godfather is a movie that is difficult for many people, and nearly impossible for me, to turn off. It is in many ways miraculous, as the production was a constant uphill battle for Coppola and the actors against the studio who thought it would go nowhere.