Ceremonial links between The Godfather  and The Searchers

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe Unversity, Melbourne, Australia

Ethan Edwards storms out of a funeral to begin the pursuit of his nieces in The Searchers (1956). Both The Godfather and The Searchers feature disrupted ceremonies. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

At first glance, The Godfather (1972) would seem to have little or nothing to do with The Searchers (1956). One is a gangster film, and the other is a western. One is filmed in Monument Valley, Arizona, and it is set after the American Civil War, while the other is set in urban New York after the Second World War. The films were made more than a quarter-century apart, in radically different genres, by two exceptionally talented but different directors. John Ford was politically conservative with a pro-military stance, while Francis Ford Coppola was highly ambivalent about the role of the military and his films are more left-wing. Yet it is striking how much Coppola was influenced by John Ford, particularly with The Searchers (1956), when he came to make his gangster epic.

The most obvious comparison between the films is the closing scene. When Ethan Edwards rides up to the homestead at the end of The Searchers to return his niece, it is set in bright sunshine. Ford then shoots the final scene from a fixed camera – presumedly from the darkness inside the house. The heavy black edges of the door enclose the film’s last shot. The audience looks out to the desert and sees the film’s various characters walk through it to reenter the house to gain entrance into the community. Ethan Edwards stands at the door to consider his next step for a moment. He has carried his niece Debbie Edwards to the doorway. Upon arrival, Debbie is greeted warmly and walked through the door with the Jorgensen family to rejoin the community. After they enter, Edwards takes a hesitant step but then halts when a couple, Martin Pawley and his fiancé Laurie Jorgensen, move through the doorway – and onto an inevitable marriage  – with a sure integration back into the community. Edwards then looks through the door, pauses as if deciding what to do, and reluctantly turns his back to it. The door closes, and he is barred from entering a community that has reunited.

The use of the door also features at the end of The Godfather (1972), but the underlying relationship is quite different. The new Godfather, Michael Corleone, has just completed a deadly and systematic series of assassinations to avenge his first wife, father, and brother. In a bold series of moves, Michael retakes his father’s empire, crushes his enemies, and solidifies himself as the most powerful mafia don in the country. The last murder is a gruesome and protracted garrotting of his brother-in-law Carlo, which he witnesses without emotion as he settles the “family accounts.” Following the murder of Carlo, his wife Connie – who is Michael’s sister – confronts Michael about the death. She screams at him while he remains unemotional. The scene takes place in full view of Michael’s second wife, Kay. After Connie has been escorted away, Kay demands to know if it is true that he killed Carlo. In a rare burst of anger, Michael slams the desk and then settles down, permitting Kay to ask one question about his business – or rather criminal – affairs. Michael lies to her face about the murder, and a wave of relief spreads over Kay’s face, but after she leaves the room she looks back at Michael, who meets his henchman, and she realises he is a murderer. Looking directly at Kay, his bodyguard Al Neri walks to the door, nods at Kay, and closes it. This scene leaves Kay outside the inner workings of the Corleone Family. In Godfather Part II (1974), the scene is almost repeated, except Michael goes one step further and closes the door in Kay’s face denying her contact with her children as well. Despite being Michael’s wife, Kay has been exiled from the family in the same fashion as Ethan Edwards. [1] While Edwards makes his own decision, Kay has little or no choice. Of course, in Ford’s universe, the community is central and supportive. In The Godfather, the family is evil at its core. In Ford’s film, the community exists in the darkness of their rooms – a shade from the fierce sunlight. In Coppola’s reworking, Kay is in a sunny room, while Michael is in the moral gloom of his office.

Another link between The Godfather and The Searchers is its use of ceremonies. The film critic Danny Peary has pointed out that rituals are disrupted at every turn in The Searchers. The arrival of Sam’s rangers disrupts Ethan’s homecoming. In turn, Edwards storms out of a funeral to pursue his captured nieces. Edwards shoots a dead Comanche in the eyes to destroy his burial. A wedding is called off when Ethan returns to the community.[2] Throughout the film, ceremonies are wrecked, cut short, or abandoned. The film is in sharp contrast to earlier ones by John Ford, such as Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), where ceremonies bring the community together.

The same disruption is also evident in The Godfather, but in different terms. At his daughter’s wedding, Vito Corleone must also deal with a vast range of requests from his community, even as the celebrations continue. Vito seems to move seamlessly between dealing with his business and enjoying the wedding. The opening sets up the idea that the work of the Corleone family never stops. Even a momentous occasion such as his daughter’s wedding does not distract the family head from his duties.

At his daughter’s wedding, Vito Corleone must also deal with a vast range of requests from his community, even as the celebrations for Connie and Carlo continue. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Indeed, the only ceremony that does not involve mixing family events and the criminal enterprise of the day is Michael and Apollonia’s wedding in Sicily. Michael is allowed one short period of marital bliss before Apollonia is killed in a bomb explosion. Business discussions interrupt even the burial of Vito Corleone. At the gravesite, Michael Corleone agrees to arrange a meeting with his rival Barzani to ensure peace between the mafia families. In the final ceremony, bursts of violence punctuate the christening of Michael Corleone’s nephew as his enemies are systematically cut down while as godfather to the infant he rejects: “Satan and all his works.”

The films have other parallels. The film critic Jim Kitses observed that The Godfather was part of a set of films from the 1960s which “allegorise a fallen nation in flawed protagonists.”[3] Kitses sees a predecessor to Michael Corleone in the mercenaries of The Wild Bunch (1969), directed by Sam Peckinpah. Jitses could look further back as The Wild Bunch had strong and clear links to The Searchers. Charles Bramesco wrote: “John Ford’s The Searchers had set the deconstructive ball rolling in 1956 by uncovering a wounded reactionary soul beneath the leathery, commanding exterior of the cowboy archetype, a pop-cultural revisionism that Peckinpah extended to its most extreme conclusion.”[4] Like Ethan Edwards, Michael Corleone is out to destroy those who have injured his family. Unlike Edwards, Corleone is unemotional, cold, and calculating. Initially, Corleone is bright and happy and not part of the criminal enterprise. The shooting of his father Vito by Vincent Sollozzo, combined with the foiled attack on his father at the hospital, wrenches Michael Corleone from an outsider to central participant – and eventually crowns him as family head. His clothes become darker, as does his character.

In more general terms, the similarities between Michael Corleone and Ethan Edwards reflect yet another Herculean anti-hero, capable of great deeds but destructive to the family they are trying to protect. The theme became more pronounced as the series of Godfather films continued. Both Godfather Part II and Part III deal with the further unraveling of the family, as Michael seeks to protect it. In the trilogy’s final episode, Michael hands over control to his nephew Vincent Mancini, warning that he can head the Corleone family, but he must give up any prospect of family life. The two cannot co-exist. Like Ethan Edwards, Mancini must walk away from a chance of domestic family life. Edwards turns his back to the audience and returns to the desert to live much like the Comanche corpse earlier in the film; Ethan is fated to “wander forever between the winds.” For all his power, achievement, and efforts, Corleone loses his family and dies alone in a foreign country. Both figures are outcasts.


[1] The similarity is mentioned in discussion on the Internet Movie Data Base at https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049730/movieconnections/ accessed on 28 February 2022. Such similarities have been made noted by other commentors. Among others see Wes D. Gehring, Gehring Lost & Found: Selected Essays. N.p.: BearManor Media, (n.d.).” “What Does the Final Shot of “The Searchers” Mean?,” https://the-take.com/watch/what-does-the-final-shot-of-the-searchers-mean, accessed on 28 February 2022. Zachary Cruz-Tan, “Hollywood Retro Film Festival – The Searchers,” https://hookedonfilmwa.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/hollywood-retro-film-festival-the-searchers/.

[2] Danny Peary, Cult Movies, The Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird, and the Wonderful, London: Delacorte Press, 1981, 313.

[3] Jim. Kitses, Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood, United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019, 202.

[4]Charles Bramesco, “The Wild Bunch at 50: the enduring nihilism of Sam Peckinpah’s western,” The Guardian,  18 June 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jun/18/the-wild-bunch-at-50-sam-peckinpah-enduring-nihilism-western, accessed on 28 February 2022.

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