The Godfather at 50 — Few Films Have Left Their Mark on Society Like this One By: Peter Suciu

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It was 45 years ago this past May that Star Wars was first released. It remains arguably the biggest cultural phenomenon in generations—spawning prequels, sequels, and spinoffs and ultimately becoming a pop culture licensing powerhouse like no other film in history.

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Yet, five years earlier another film also left its mark on pop culture but also on society in general. It was The Godfather, and it arguably changed Hollywood forever.

The Godfather movie poster

In fact, had it not been for the success of The Godfather, it is unlikely Star Wars would have become a true “blockbuster” given that the gangster film changed the way films were brought out during their initial theatrical run. More importantly, in many ways, The Godfather has become an iconic part of our modern culture, albeit without action figures. Even as a film aimed at adults, and one that largely lacked the action-packed shootouts expected today, it still spawned posters, t-shirts, and yes, a video game!

The Godfather video game
There is far more violence in the video game version of The Godfather.

Over the past five decades, the influence of The Godfather has been seen in how movies are made, most notably demonstrating how a well-received film can result in a solid sequel. The film has been the subject of books and documentaries while several universities have had classes focused specifically on it, and its impact on society.

This year, the Paramount+ original limited-run series The Offer even provided a 10-episode drama just about the making of the film. That’s some treatment even the far away galaxy has yet to receive.

The Cultural Sensation

As numerous writers have praised the film, and even its sequels, many have noted that without The Godfather there likely wouldn’t have been the wave of gangster films and TV series that followed—including most notably Goodfellas and The Sopranos. Today, in fact, nearly every pay TV channel or streaming service has had or currently has its own gangster-themed series – some better than others.

The list includes such titles as Brotherhood, Ray Donovan, Godfather of Harlem, Power, and Peaky Blinders. And there is a common theme—these shows all feature “anti-heroes” who are often criminals, and we’re supposed to root for them. Even the Star Wars spinoff The Book of Boba Fett is essentially about a bounty-hunter turned gangland leader.

It was hardly the first “family-friendly” gangster story—as the musical comedy Bugsy Malone featured an all-child cast that included a young Scott Baio and Jody Foster. It is almost certain that the film wouldn’t have been made had it not been for the precedence of The Godfather.

The Negative Impact of The Godfather

While violent movies, TV shows, and video games have often been in the spotlight for their role in mass shootings, never is the influence of The Godfather actually mentioned. The film gets the proverbial gangland “pass” likely because it doesn’t really glorify violence—and the only truly graphic scene is Sonny’s ambush.

scene from the Godfather
There wasn’t over-the-top violence in The Godfather, apart from one very brief sequence.

Perhaps The Godfather is worse because it glorifies crime, and glamorizes gangsters. Don Vito Corleone is respected yet feared. He is an important man who wields great power, and where politicians and celebrities bow to him. More importantly, unlike in previous gangster films, the Corleone family may have setbacks but the reluctant Michael—the son who was never meant for the gangster life—is drawn into it.

That may not be winning, as Michael never wanted that life, but he hardly loses—at least not in the first film. In fact, even in The Godfather Part II he’s able to avoid prison while losing his family. It is only in the third outing, made a generation later, that Michael suffers the loss of his daughter, yet he maintained a successful business for all
those years.

It’s hard not to see that as an American success story.

“The 1930s and 1940s films were still a glorification of the gangster life, but in the end James Cagney still died in a pool of blood,” explained Dr. Declan Hill, associate professor of investigations at the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Science at the University of New Haven, Connecticut.

“The Godfather is different in that they don’t end up in a pool of blood,” added Hill, who also wrote two international best-selling books after infiltrating a group of mobsters who travel the world corrupting top-level sports events. “The Godfather was also the start of the realism of this world, and it showed the nexus of organizated crime, including the corruption, and having politicians on the payroll.”

The Anti-Hero Who Never Really Pays… Enough

Were it not for The Godfather there likely wouldn’t be this endless cycle of gangster-themed shows. However, the film can only be blamed—if that is even the right word—simply due to the fact it was a matter of timing. It would have been impossible to make the film even five years earlier.

“Key here is the adoption in the fall of 1968 of the Voluntary Movie Rating System, a system of classification (as opposed to censorship) put forward by the MPAA—under the old production code, a system of “compensating values” was enforced—crime didn’;t pay, period,” said Dr. Jon Lewis, professor in the school of writing, literature, and film at Oregon State University.

“After 1968, that a character could get away with crime is at least possible,” added Lewis, who has written multiple books on the study of film, in particular The Godfather. “Bonnie and Clyde—released in 1967, anticipating the new system—is often credited as the first film to complicate closure in crime films, though of course, they don’t get away with “it” at the end.”

It was also in 1972 that the fittingly named The Getaway, starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw was released, and it too featured a film where the bank-robbing main characters are able to actually “getaway,” so it could be argued that even had The Godfather not been made, there was a shift in what types of stories could be made.

However, unlike The Godfather, which received critical praise and went on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, The Getaway was generally disliked by critics—its 1994 remake with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger didn’t fare much better.

Did Michael Actually Pay?

In the various studies of the film, it is often noted that Michael does suffer for his actions. That is a sentiment shared by Lewis, with Michael paying for his crimes—albeit not in the way perhaps that James Cagney had decades earlier in such films as White Heat.

“Coppola would dispute that Michael gets away with anything at the end of the film—he isn’t killed or jailed but his ambitions to live a life different from his father are dashed and the cost of his embrace of power atop the organized crime syndicate is huge—he is at the end of the film a monster, capable of murdering his brother-in-law,” said Lewis. “Connie, his sister, calls him a ‘cold-hearted bastard’ and she is of course right. The Godfather Part II ends with the murder of his older brother Fredo, which he watches without so much as flinching … modern audiences may well see Michael as a role model – a model ruthless businessman at least – but Coppola doesn’t see it that way
at all.”

From our viewpoint however, Michael is the new Don, and while it wasn’t the life he wanted, he openly embraces it. He still had the opportunity to walk away—but chose not to, so it is hard to see how he’s actually punished.

Yet, this form of “punishment” is now almost expected with the modern crime tale—and it is just part of the business. Walter White may end up dead at the end of Breaking Bad, but he had terminal cancer and his partner-in-crime Jesse did get away. It could be argued he faced his own personal hell before he was able to escape, but the drugs he and Mr. White produced no doubt would have brought untold pain and suffering to hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of people.

The happy ending for Breaking Bad would see Jesse in prison, not able to live out his days in Alaska.

The same is true with the Netflix original Ozark. Marty Byrde, like Walter White, is a hardworking sad sack whose life arguably gets better only after a turn to the “dark side.” Both may have to face the constant fear of death, but each does exactly what they are so good at—and that’s a win for their respective egos. Moreover, it needs to be stressed that both characters went looking for a way to make a quick and easy buck. They weren’t forced into a life of crime.

The Godfather did set the precedent of the anti-hero,”; said Tom Garrett, associate professor and chain for the Communication, Film and Media Studies department at the University of New Haven.

“They aren’t punished,” Garrett added. “As a result, we’re intrigued by what they are doing and it is glamorizing being the bad guy.”

Where the trend could be worrisome is that we don’t just watch these others make these bad choices on TV, we can “live out”similar lives via video games such as the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series, Scarface (an official sequel to the film), and the aforementioned The Godfather. Today there is a multitude of games where you play as criminals pushing heists and engaging in shootouts with the police. Is it any wonder so many of the younger generation have little to no respect for law enforcement?

Grand Theft Auto
The Grand Theft Auto series has been a top seller and has earned tons of accolades, all for hijacking cars and working with gangsters.

“GTA is a good example of where The Godfather has taken us,” Hill suggested. “It has been a gradual conveyor built. I would argue it started with the opening scene of The Godfather showing that bullshit wedding. That suggested these were refined men, family men.”

Gangsters Today Study It

There are countless stories of young stockbrokers who grew up watching Wall Street and no doubt there are those who now study The Wolf of Wall Street, just as a few aspiring arms dealers would repeatedly watch Lord of War. Somehow the final act, where the characters eventually pay in some way for their bad decisions, is skipped.

Of course, the lessons in The Godfather are overlooked as well.

“Gangsters and gangster wannabes around the world watch The Godfather, at least to educate themselves to hone their look and their mannerisms,”; said Hill. “That doesn’t mean they ever actually changed their attitude, but they knew to get better suits. This is true of the Russian mob and the Triads of China. The film was like a crash course at least in how to look like a gangster.”

Yet, the honor code depicted in the film and subsequent gangster cinema is missing in the real world.

“These men are still sheep herders in nice clothing. That is especially true of the hit men, and I can’t express that enough, they’re dumb as fuck sheep herders who kill humans,” Hill said quite bluntly. “They will skin you and dissolve your dead body in an acid barrel. There is very little code of honor.”

Even when the films and TV series show this dark side, much of the time it is characters we don’t like who end up in the shallow grave or barrel. The films and TV series rarely show the suffering of those who are impacted by the drug trade, human trafficking, or other crime sprees. The Sopranos barely touched on, and often it was played for comic relief—such as a late season episode where some in the crew found it difficult to shake down the manager at the local Starbucks. The viewer was meant to have a sense of nostalgia for the old neighborhood, albeit one where shop owners risked a broken knee cap for not paying “protection.”

It is part of the long trend that goes back to showing gangsters as noble and almost honorable, beginning with the infamous wedding scene.

“That isn’t the case,” Hill added. “These are the type of men who will beat you for bumping into them in a restaurant, or for saying the wrong thing. That’s the reality.”