One of the biggest questions in movie history is whether The Godfather romanticizes the mafia. Both sides have fair points, but I already know the answer.
The plot of The Godfather needs no explaining. Almost everyone knows about the tale of Vito, Michael, Sonny, and Tom. Francis Ford Coppola got his start with writing Patton, but this movie put him on the map. Even though most of the cast is either dead or playing second fiddle to Adam Sandler and Coppola directed a Big rip-off with Robin Williams, the movie still endears with audiences today. One of those audiences is the actual mafia.
It’s almost impossible to state how big of an influence The Godfather had on the mafia community. For example, the use of the word “don” today is affected by the movie. Originally, it was “Don (first name)”, but because of the frequent mentions of “Don Corleone” instead of “Don Vito” or “Don Michael”, it’s mostly used nowadays as “Don (last name)”. This and other factors led many to believe that The Godfather romanticizes the mafia.
One of the factors that has causes this is its status as the quintessential guy movie. This was even mentioned in the 1998 dud You’ve Got Mail. Many gangsters want to be seen as manly and they like to emulate guy things. This has caused them to emulate The Godfather even further.
The Godfather’s status as a classic movie has helped in this regard too. The film was second on the AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies list back in 2007, has the number 2 spot on IMDb’s 250 Greatest Movies list, and was number 1 on Empire Magazine’s 500 Greatest Movies poll. When people see all those accolades and learn that mobsters emulate it, they assume that the movie is supporting mobsters. Not helping matters, the characters are badasses, which makes mobsters want to be them more.
Looking at the film at surface levels intensify this further. Michael (Al Pacino) is a badass soldier and later a badass mob boss. He gets revenge on those that betrayed him in one of the most iconic scenes in movie history.
The character of Sonny (James Caan) is one of the biggest examples. He’s everything that a gangster could want to be. He’s strong, he defends his sister’s honor, and, in a brief scene towards the beginning, it’s insinuated that he has a large penis. The scene where he beats up his sister’s abusive husband is a very memorable scene. And since most gangsters value family, they like him even more.
And then there’s Vito (Marlon Brando) . He’s one of the most revered characters in film history. He vehemently opposes selling drugs, not only because it would offend his “political connections”, but because he feels it would damage the Mafia. Considering how the mob suffered during the War on Drugs, his beliefs are prescient. When he finally agrees to sell drugs, he says that they should be kept away from children. This shows that he has morals. Also, his “adoption” of Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) can be seen as him not being racist, as Hagen is Irish and they weren’t very revered in the 40’s and 50’s.
So the main characters are a badass, a well-endowed man who fights for his sister’s honor, and a non-racist who wants kids to be drug free. What could be wrong with liking these characters? Sure, they work in a dirty business, but they’re better people than some of the other mobsters. This would be good enough for anyone looking exclusively at the surface level.
Badass he may be, Michael is still a heavily flawed man. He beats his Italian wife and she ends up dying in a car explosion. He seems to care more about vengeance than he should. Even Vito didn’t seek revenge when Sonny died. In addition, during the scene where his betrayers are getting killed, he’s being the godfather to one of their children. Then he blatantly lies to his other wife Kay (Diane Keaton) about it at the very end.
If you pay attention to Sonny, it’s obvious that he’s less of a badass and more unhinged and ready to fly off the handle at the drop of a hat. This later gets him killed. His death is very, very brutal. He’s ambushed at a tollbooth and is then riddled with bullets. In addition, he cheats on his wife many times.
Vito isn’t as moral as most people say as well. During the same scene where Vito says drugs should be kept out of children’s hands, he says that they should mostly be done in the black community. He even compares them to animals. This means that even though he’s not racist against Irish, he’s racist against blacks. He does some brutal things throughout the movie. In particular, the infamous scene involving Woltz’s horse. He has two attempts on life during the movie and loses one of his sons.
There’s another aspect of Vito that many don’t seem to pick up on. When he hears that Michael has gotten into the business, he looks distressed. He feels that Michael has potential to be better than this.
Many side characters bite it during the movie. The most famous side character who dies would probably be Luca Brasi. He gets stabbed and garroted. This shows that being a mobster is very dangerous.
It is almost impossible to talk about The Godfather without mentioning its sequel. Coppola has admitted that the sequel was an attempt to make the mob look as dark as it actually is. Michael commits several horrible acts like having an innocent prostitute killed to scare a senator. His own brother Fredo (John Cazale) accidentally betrays Michael. Because of this, Michael has Fredo killed while fishing. This causes Kay to abort her pregnancy because she doesn’t want to have another child with such a monster. They break up soon afterwards. We, also, see Vito (played by Robert De Niro here) rise up to become a don. We see him act a lot like Michael to show that the mob cycle is a repeating cycle. I could mention The Godfather Part III, but the less said about that one the better.
It may seem obvious at this point, but I don’t believe that The Godfather romanticizes the mob. They may seem cool and badass, but they all have major dysfunctions which hamper their lives. Michael has his vengeance, Sonny has his temper, and Vito has his immorality. In addition, those last two die during the movie. Sonny dies a horrifically brutal death while Vito dies a peaceful death. But, he endures several assassination attempts during the movie, one of them in front of his son Fredo who’s clearly horrified by it. All of the family members commit horrible acts throughout the film. They kill horses, prostitutes, family members, people family members have promises not to kill and other assorted people, deal drugs, act racist against black people, cheat and lie to their wives, and generally act crude. Their life expectancy is very low as well. Many of their associates, like Luca Brasi, die in brutal ways. The only way to see the film as a romanticized picture of the mob is to look at it at a surface level and not pay attention a lot. The mobsters who like this movie as an inspiration remind me of white supremacists who think “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” is about how awesome the Nazis were.
In conclusion, The Godfather doesn’t romanticize the mafia. Despite some cool scenes and complex characters, we’re meant to be disgusted by what we see. The characters may seem badass, but they are also violent and brutal. Surviving isn’t guaranteed.