Why The Godfather was a ‘stark warning’ for the US

“To me originally, and anyone who remembers the original Godfather book, it had a lot of sleazy aspects to it, which of course were cut out for the movie, and I didn’t like it very much for those reasons,” he told Sir Christopher Frayling in a 1985 BBC interview.

But being from an Italian-American background like its author Puzo, he did understand the culture, tradition and family rituals the story was steeped in. And, as he reread the book, he saw there was much more to it than just a potboiler about crime, sex and revenge. The story had themes that were classical in their nature, a powerful father and family bonds, a son yearning to escape his fate, old-world values clashing with a changing society, honour and betrayal, and how power corrupts the souls of those who wield it.

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“Obviously I was more interested in those themes but those themes could apply to a Shakespeare play, or any piece that deals, you know, Greek drama even really, that deals with those bigger themes, and that’s more where I had my attention on,” Coppola told Barry Norman.

He and Puzo drew out these themes as they worked together on the screenplay. Coppola told the BBC that at the heart of the film lies an examination of power dynamics, the corrupting influence of powerful families and a commentary on the way the US operates on the world stage.

Parallels with the US

The first film’s timeline, which spans from the 1940s to the 1950s, coincides with an era where the US is emerging from the ashes of World War Two, and becoming a dominant force on the global stage. The Corleones, a family bonded not just by blood but by their immigrant background, represent an America that is both insular looking and ruthless in its application of force and influence in its own self-interest.

In the film, Don Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) will, depending on the situation, negotiate, bribe, intimidate or resort to savage violence to ensure that his family’s interests and power are maintained. Likewise, the US, faced with what it saw as the threat of the Soviet Union, was being accused of using clandestine operations or bribery to destabilise rival countries, forming alliances with other nations, promising them its protection and fighting proxy wars in other countries, to ensure US interests prevailed.

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