Thanksgiving is this Thursday here in the US. My wife and I head home tomorrow for four days of family and too much food. So I thought, this week, why not focus on a film that explores the meaning of family and American identity? I’m talking, of course, about The Godfather.
On the surface, Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece might seem like a straightforward gangster flick, the story of Michael Corleone’s evolution into a ruthless crime boss. Yet I would argue that this is wrong on two counts: The Godfather isn’t a gangster movie at all, and Michael Corleone is not the film’s protagonist.
I know what you’re thinking. Did this clown even watch the movie? I gave up reading Joe Biden memes for this! Breathe. Hear me out. The memes will still be there when we’re finished.
Anyway, as outrageous as these claims might seem, an examination of the movie’s structure seems to confirm them. And speaking of awkward segues…
Story Structure: Breakdown
This analysis is indebted to Syd Field’s three-act paradigm as elaborated by Darious Britt in this video. I’d also like to give a particular shout-out to this article, which looks specifically at the The Godfather.
Act One: The Set-up
Act One sets up the world of the Corleone family. We get a sense of “business as usual,” meet our central characters, and introduce the main themes.
The Hook: The undertaker Bonasera tells the story of his daughter’s assault. The men who attacked her received a suspended sentence, and Bonasera has come to ask Vito Corleone — the titular Godfather — to make them “suffer as she suffers.” Vito refuses, citing Bonasera’s lack of respect. Chastened, Bonasera offers his friendship, and Vito relents.
The Set-up: The wedding. We meet each of Vito’s children: Connie, the bride. Sonny, the eldest, ruled by his impulses. Tom Hagen, adopted, who keeps the business organized. Fredo, too soft, inebriated. Michael arrives late in his Marine uniform, college sweetheart Kay Adams on his arm. She’s full of questions. He answers reluctantly. “That’s my family,” he says, “It’s not me.”
Tom travels to Hollywood to negotiate with a movie mogul, Woltz. When Woltz refuses to recast a role to suit Vito, he wakes up with his prize race horse’s severed head in his bed.
Inciting Incident (Ii): Vito meets with “the Turk,” a heroin kingpin seeking to partner with the Corleones. Vito turns him down, fearing the impact the narcotics trade would have on his political connections.
Plot Point I (PPI): The Turk’s men ambush Vito in the street, riddling him with bullets.
Act Two: Conflict and Complications
In the first half of Act Two (AIIa), Michael tries to protect his father, and is attacked by McCloskey, a crooked cop. Sonny assumes command, and attacks the rival Families. Knowing that the Turk will try to kill Vito again, Michael plots to kill him and McCloskey.
Mid-point (MP): Michael meets with the Turk and carries out his plan.
In the second half of Act Two (AIIb), Michael flees to Sicily, where he meets and marries Appollonia. Vito returns home to recuperate. Sonny continues making things worse, until
Plot Point II (PPII): Sonny is ambushed by a rival Family and gunned down. Michael learns of his brother’s death moments before a car bomb intended for him explodes, killing his wife.
Act Three: Resolution
Vito negotiates peace with the other families, allowing Michael to return.Michael reunites with Kay. Vito dies, and Michael assumes control of the family.
Climactic Moment (CM): As Michael stands as godfather at the baptism of Connie’s newborn son, his men execute the heads of the rival families.
Michael roots out the traitors within the Family, and when confronted by Kay, assures her that he is in the process of turning their business ventures into legitimate enterprises. However, when Kay leaves his office, she overhears a group of visitors address him as “Don Corleone,” just as they used to do Vito.
That’s the movie, now what does it all mean?
What Makes A Hero?: Toward a Definition of “Protagonist”
Although he plays a significant role in the film, particularly in the final act, Michael Corleone is not our film’s protagonist. Why not? What exactly is a protagonist?
K. M. Weiland defines the protagonist as “the person who’s driving the plot… the vortex at the center of the cyclone.” The protagonist’s actions create the story’s conflict and push the plot forward. His decisions make stuff happen. Without him, there is no engine; instead of a mint-condition Gran Torino rolling down the freeway, all you’ve got is a very big, very expensive lawn ornament you can plant flower bulbs in.
Is this Michael? Looking over our story breakdown, I would have to say no, at least, not entirely. Of the plot points we’ve outlined — the Inciting Incident, Plot Point I, Mid-point, Plot Point II — only one hinges on Michael’s actions. Everything else happens around him, or apart from him [at the time of the Ii, for example, Michael is still very much on the outside of the family business]. But if not Michael, then who? That’s a little complicated.
Act One shows us the Corleone Family under Vito’s leadership. Things run smoothly, with an emphasis on honor and diplomacy. Harsher tactics come to play only when truly necessary. The Family prospers. It is Vito who decides not to join the Turk (Ii); it is Vito who suffers the consequences of that decision (PPI).
AIIa follows the Family’s reactions to the attack on Vito. Sonny lashes out against the other Families, edging toward war. Tom tries to be the voice of restraint. Michael hatches a plan of revenge.
The Mid-point finally gives us a change to see Michael himself. He’s caught: on the one hand, the life of the upright outsider which he and Vito together built for him; on the other, his family, his father, and their shadowy world. The plan calls for him to meet the Turk at a restaurant, go to the bathroom, and retrieve a gun stashed there; he’s supposed to come out shooting. Instead, Michael puts the gun in his pocket and returns to the table. We watch him struggle mightily with his moral dilemma, seemingly on the verge of tears. His entire life will be gone in an instant if he pulls the trigger; his father’s [and likely those of his brothers] will be taken if he does not.
But pull the trigger he does, and AIIb follows the aftermath of that decision. Sonny’s war with the Five Families worsens; Michael goes into hiding. Vito comes home to recuperate, but he’s still too weak to resume control. Sonny’s impetuousness leads him to confront his brother-in-law for physically abusing Connie; when it happens again, Sonny races to her defense, only to be ambushed en route by a rival gang (PPII). This incident leads Vito to return as acting don until Michael is able to succeed him.
The actions which define The Godfather‘s plot are: Vito’s decision not to join the Turk, the attempt on Vito’s life, Michael’s revenge, and Sonny’s assassination. This is the story, not of one man’s course through a series of obstacles, but of an entire family’s. The Corleone family as a whole is our protagonist.
OK, fine. But what’s this business about this not being a gangster movie?
Family, Country, Identity: Themes
First and foremost, The Godfather is a film about family, and not just as a euphemism for a criminal organization. We open with Connie’s lavish wedding; other key sequences include a baptism and a funeral. Michael’s concern for his father and brothers is what drives him to kill the Turk. Sonny’s concern for his sister leads to his own demise. I could go on, but belaboring the point might suggest that the film serves merely as a portrait of one particular family, the Corleones.
The concern with family extends beyond Michael’s blood [and adoptive] relatives, however. In one of the most iconic moments of the film, two Corleone capos drive a third man into the countryside and execute him in the car. As they exit the scene, Clemenza, the older capo, instructs his partner to “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”
In its proper context, the scene is more than just an excuse for a surreal one-liner. In a previous scene, Clemenza and his wife chat like typical married folks — “What time will you be home?” etc. As he heads for the car, she calls after him — “Don’t forget the cannoli!” With this in mind, the call-back after the execution reads like any harried husband after a long day at work — my wife will kill me if I don’t bring these home!
Other little moments are scattered throughout the film. In the scene at the Clemenza house, as the capos pile into the car, Clemenza instructs the driver to be careful backing out of the driveway. His kids are playing in the yard, and he doesn’t want them to get hurt. Early in the film, when Luca Brasi thanks Vito for inviting him to Connie’s wedding, a group of young children bursts into the room, only to be shooed out by Tom Hagen.
But the emphasis on family is perhaps nowhere in sharper focus than in the film’s opening sequence. Bonasera has sought an audience with Don Corleone on Connie’s wedding day. He’s seeking restitution, not for vandalism or a theft or an attack on himself, but for the vicious assault on his own daughter. The timing here cannot be coincidence; the undertaker hopes to evoke empathy in Vito, who may well fear the same fate befalling Connie. When Vito refuses, he cites the fact that Bonasera never invites him over for coffee, “even though my wife is godmother to your only child.” And he relents only after Bonasera bows his head and calls him “Godfather.” The rest of the wedding sequence is littered with tiny moments emphasizing the same themes, too many to get into here. Regardless, the point is well made: The Godfather is less a film about the mob as it is a family drama which happens to focus on a mob family.
We would be remiss, however, if we let it go at that. The Corleone family is not just any family; they are an Italian-American family, a family of immigrants, in many ways a family of outsiders in the landscape of mid-20th century America. This is evidenced by the sheer number of slurs tossed around by the non-Italian characters, from Jack Woltz to Marc McCloskey to Moe Green. The Corleones are routinely treated as second class citizens by native-born Americans, as what anthropologists call “the other.”
When Michael visits his father in the hospital, he is apprehended by McCloskey’s men. When one officer objects that Michael is a war hero and has never been involved in the family’s affairs, McCloskey waves that aside. He’s a Corleone, isn’t he? He’s an Italian, isn’t it? For the crooked cop, that makes Michael “one of them,” no matter what he’s done with his life.
What has Michael done with his life? He’s been studying at Dartmouth; he enlisted in the Marines and came home a hero. Most importantly, he’s fallen in love with [and later marries] Kay Adams, a quintessential WASP from New Hampshire. The goal of Michael’s outsider life, it would seem, is assimilation into the wider American society.*
Every step he’s made toward that goal is erased when he shoots the Turk. No more the law-abiding citizen, the war hero, the good American — for the first time in his life, Michael steps wholly, willingly, into his Sicilian family’s world. Afterward, where else does he flee to but Sicily. There he falls in love with an Italian girl; they marry; they plan to one day return to America together. Perhaps Michael intends to begin again on the straight and narrow, Appollonia by his side. If so, it doesn’t matter. His every attempt at a normal life is thwarted. His enemies find him; a car bomb kills his wife and cements his destiny as heir apparent to the Corleone crime family. As don, he will exemplify the stereotype of a ruthless mafioso in ways his gentleman father never would have done.
Returning again to the film’s beginning [is this possibly the best opening scene of all time?], we can see parallels between Michael’s story and Bonasera’s. One might even say the undertaker’s monologue foreshadows Michael’s experiences in detail. Here is a man who “believe[s] in America,” who exalted its ideals, and believed that the law would protect him and his family. His daughter’s two boyfriends were “not … Italian.” Despite the brutality of their crime, they were given suspended sentences, presumably because their victim was Italian. In desperation, Bonasera turns back to his Italian community and its substitute for the courts of law, Don Corleone. The similarities to Michael’s journey throughout the film should be clear.
One final, brilliant detail. Bonasera describes his daughter’s injuries thus: “Her nose was broken; her jaw was shattered, held together by wire.” After Michael demands that McCloskey place a guard around Vito’s hospital room, the dirty cop orders his men to hold Michael still — and then breaks Michael’s jaw.
It’s interesting also to compare the meeting with Bonasera with the scene which concludes the movie. Both take place in the same office. Both end with the don’s hand being kissed by a respectful follower [albeit a different don]. And where the opening fades in on a tight shot of Bonasera’s face, the final shot shows Kay looking on in dismay as the office door is shut, leaving her in darkness. In the beginning, the Italian man dismays at the way he has been shut out from the world of mainstream America. In the end, the mainstream American stares, helpless, as she is shut out from the world of her Sicilian husband, and we come full circle.**
Family, destiny, national identity — those are some pretty heavy topics for a gangster movie. Perhaps it is in the melding of these seemingly disparate elements that The Godfather achieves its stature as a classic of the medium. In its way, it may be the quintessential American film.
Happy Thanksgiving, guys. Do like Vito says; spend time with your family. Or, you know, go back to reading Joe Biden memes. Either way,
Keep on truckin’…
*The final scene from The Godfather Part II underscores the importance of Michael’s military service in this process. After Pearl Harbor, Sonny derides the “saps” lining up to enlist, “risk[ing] their lives for strangers.” He further cautions Michael that “Your country ain’t your blood.” Michael disagrees, citing the ideal of patriotism. When Sonny retorts “Why don’t you just quit college and go join the army?” Michael replies “I did.”
** Note, too, how the conversation between Michael and Kay flows so differently at the end than it did when we first met them at the wedding. Before, he answered her persistent questions, though reluctantly. Now, he stonewalls her and eventually lies.