The Godfather

USA, 1972, 175 min. Director: Francis Ford Coppola. Stars: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan.

The Godfather, Part II

USA, 1974, 200 min. Director: Francis Ford Coppola. Stars: Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton.

The Godfather, Part III

USA, 1990, M, 157 min. Director: Francis Ford Coppola. Stars: Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Andy Garcia.

Francis Ford Coppola's towering cinema achievement is the Godfather series. Each film is excellent, and each was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar—the first two actually winning it (II being the only sequel to achieve this, I would guess).

All three are beautifully produced, their warm autumnal hues and period sets (spanning virtually the entire twentieth century) marking them from the start as serious cinema. (Only III feels false in this regard—its costumes look 1980s, not the 1970s they're meant to be). Against this classy background is enacted a series of epic tales of loyalty, revenge, violence, love, betrayal, equine craniums, and—above all—family.

Yes, the Godfather is the series which gave a whole new meaning to the word "family". It seems redundant to mention it, but for those who haven't seen the countless spoofs, jokes, and take-offs of Brando's rather hammy performance ("We'll make him an offer he can't refuse"), the Godfathers are about that closest of families, the Mafia.

Right away you can guess that they're therefore jam-packed with lots of rather violent scenes involving hoods in suits carrying machineguns. And they are. But there's so much more going on over each film's three hours that the violence becomes a mere background detail. The epic's central character is Michael Corleone (Pacino), and the films follow his struggles with his conscience as he is drawn into the family trade he wanted to escape.

My favourite is still the first. It's here you see the elder of the family, Vito Corleone (Brando), and his most-likely-to-be-a-mobster son, Sonny (Caan), do their stuff (only to meet rather unfortunate ends). Part II, which interweaves the tale of Michael's rise in the mob with the parallel story of the young immigrant Vito (De Niro) in the 1920s, is regarded by many as being even better than the first. I'll disagree there: Michael's a bit too introspective in this instalment to make it the powerhouse which was The Godfather. But it's certainly another great film.

Part III, made many years later (partly, one suspects, to rescue Coppola from a decade of less-successful films) received a mixed response, generally being regarded as good but not great. I like it easily as much as Part II. Its only real flaw was the nepotistic casting of Sofia Coppola as Michael's daughter (after Winona Ryder withdrew)—not because the part needs a Hollywood bombshell (I quite liked the fact that the apple of Michael's eye looked like an ordinary person) but because Sofia can't act. But Pacino can, and he delivers an impressive performance (after a decade of low-key roles) as the new Godfather who seeks to escape from his past and buy redemption through his support for the Catholic church. As Michael discovers (and as George Costanza later lamented in Seinfeld), "Just when I think I'm out—they pull me back in!"

All three Godfather films are worth your time. Coppola is a name to be reckoned with in American film-making, and although others of his films will last—the critics would certainly point to Apocalypse Now and The Conversation, and I would add Bram Stoker's Dracula and especially Tucker—the Godfathers are the films with which he will always most be identified.


First published in a reviews booklet of the ANU Film Group.
This page: 31 January 2000; last modified 16 February 2001.

©1995, 2000 Rory Ewins