Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University
The Godfather was released on 24 March 1972, and it has become one of the iconic films of the twentieth century. It is often voted in the top ten films of all time. Expressions such as “Make him an offer he cannot refuse,” are common place. Even the adlibbed line such as “don’t forget the cannoli” is now on T-shirts. The fascination with the series shows no sign of diminishing, with even the weakest of the sequels, Godfather part III, to be re-edited with new ending.
Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, which was never more than an enjoyable read, director Frances Ford Coppola managed to create one of the great family sagas of all time. It combined the gangster film with distinct resonances of the power struggles of the Borgias – who even get a mention in Godfather Part III. At times, Coppola also looks at reworking Shakespeare’s King Lear. Overall, he is remodelling some of the great family dynasty epics. Can it be that one of the most successful TV shows in British Television History was I, Claudius, where the naked ambition of the Julio-Claudian family, is laid bare. The show was released in the wake of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Its slogan was: “All Rome thought him a fool, but his genius was survival.”
The opening sequence has a middle aged Italian man talking to the Godfather Vito Corleone, seeking the murder of two men who attempted to rape his daughter. He says: I believe in America. America has made my fortune, and I raised my daughter in the American fashion.” Right from the start, there is a clear distinction between traditional values and the Corleone family. The legal system – the tool of the moneyed white classes – had failed the Italian community, “for justice, you need to go to Don Corleone. We never see what happens to the young men, but we can safely assume it is not pleasant. (In the book, they are beaten with professional restraint – they are not murdered.)
Filmed in glorious rich colors by Vittorio Storaro, the film takes its time to introduce its cast through a favors session with Don Corleone and then an extensive wedding scene. The camera shows little sections of each of the major characters, giving an idea of each character. The wedding is a formal Italian family wedding, but the undertones are there from the beginning. The wedding gives way to full scale intimidation of a Hollywood producer who will not yield to a small Corleone request. The film switches gear and we realise that these ‘salt of the earth’ Italians can and will flick any violent switch to get what they want.
The Godfather was produced when the Pentagon papers were being released, and massive protests against the Vietnam War were being held across the United States. The period reflected the breaking of trust between the US Government and the American people. The Pentagon Papers detailed the history of the United States’ political and military involvement in IndoChina from 1945 to 1967. The papers had demonstrated, among other things, that the various administrations misrepresented the situation in Vietnam to the American people.
The initial context of the film has been lost over the passage of time. The original Godfather was released at the time of the Nixon administration, particularly when the Watergate scandal was about to reach its conclusion. From 1972 to 1974, the United States had been preoccupied with the Watergate scandal, which led to the impeachment process of President Nixon, eventually forcing his resignation. In many ways, the Nixon administration reflected the world of the Corleone’s. On the surface, it spoke of traditional virtues such as family, honor and tradition, while underneath, it was unlawful. Whatever trust remained, was lost when the Watergate scandal broke, and it has never been recovered.
For a new generation, the Trump administration has provided some renewed interest in the film. One academic has even managed to draw some weak links between the Trump Administration and The Godfather.  Certainly cartoonists. T-shirt designers and political commentators have not shied away from the analogy.
Vincent Canby in The New York Times wrote: “for the Corleones, the land of opportunity is America the Ugly, in which almost everyone who is not Sicilian or, more narrowly, not a Corleone, is a potential enemy. Mr. Coppola captures this feeling of remoteness through the physical look of place and period, and through the narrative’s point of view. “The Godfather” seems to take place entirely inside a huge smoky plastic dome, through which the Corleone’s see our real world only dimly.”
The Trump administration certainly does contain a lot of relatives. The Republican National Congress demonstrated their the family connections. The Trumps do convey a them against the world attitude.
Trump also rode a wave of disquiet at elites to get to the White House. The disquiet may have begun with the left, but it has spread to the right. Trump’s calls to “drain the swamp” of American politics, resonated with a disaffected electorate. His election represented a hostile takeover of the Republican Party and the American presidency. The disquiet which The Godfather reflected in 1972 is now the political mainstream.