While few would argue against the quality of The Godfather, which tells the tale of a fictional family of Sicilian mobsters as they attempt to survive in the harsh world of New York organized crime, some people do not understand precisely how influential the film was, and how much inspiration it took from current events at the time. To be sure, the film was extremely successful, but in order to truly understand the impact the film had and understand how it reflected current events and prevailing notions at the time it was created, it is necessary to take a closer look at the film and find out what makes it tick.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the film is its utilization of the mafia, specifically, public opinion of the mafia, which had largely died off by the time the film was produced, but whose memory was still fresh in the minds of citizens. While the mafia had been in power for a long time before, since around the early twenties, when prohibition took over the United States, mafia crime rates and participation exploded with a large number of smuggling and bootlegging operations, and required an organized group of criminals to manage it (Arlacchi, 25). In addition, there were several famous mafia leaders who became infamous for their crime sprees, such as Al Capone, who now resides within the annals of history as one of the most ruthless crime lords ever. These events created the foundation for strong publicity of the mafia, especially the Italian and Sicilian mafias, who were virtually identical in most respects (Arlacchi 25). A large number of people relied on the mafia for favors that would not have been possible otherwise, while others feared them and did everything they could to avoid them, especially those who lived in populated urban areas such as New York and Chicago. However, once the mafia was largely eliminated, they became Robin Hood-esque figures, who meted out their own form of justice (Klerks 61). In this way, the mafia became the perfect candidates for a large number of both books and movies, with The Godfather being one of the most prominent books, which was then turned into a movie of the same name. To be sure, the massive influence the mafia had on the public opinion in the United States (such as the Gambino and Gotti families) was a large factor in the production of The Godfather. This influence can be seen especially clearly in the character of Don Corleone, who is the Godfather of the Corleone family. Don Corleone is based on "Don Vito" Genovese, who was the leader of the Genovese crime family, and, due to the reputation his family acquired over the years, became known as the Boss of all Bosses (Klerks 54). This romanticizing of criminals is how such unsavory characters throughout history became famous, and is no different for those within the crime world.
Another aspect that is reflected in The Godfather is the trends found in similar films around the time it was produced. Perhaps the most prominent of the similarities are with fellow Oscar winners. For example, The French Connection, which won the Oscar for best picture the year before The Godfather did, was similarly about wars between criminals and police, and how desperate measures must sometimes be taken in order to achieve victory (Klerks 55). Perhaps the most startling connection between these two films is their overarching message: that crime, while it does certainly pay, has its drawbacks and sacrifices that must be made, and that oftentimes the glamorous life of criminals is not what it is made out to be. In a way, both The Godfather and The French Connection could be considered anti-crime films, since they show the underbelly of crime effectively. Another film that The Godfather borrowed elements from was A Clockwork Orange, which was released only a year before. Similar to the other two movies, A Clockwork Orange puts a spin on criminals and how they should be portrayed and treated. It deals with punishment for criminals, and how oftentimes the punishment does not fit the crime. While The Godfather took the vast majority of its plot from the novel of the same name, it is obvious that a large number of these thematic elements from these two movies, and others like it, made their way into The Godfather, with generally positive results.
The Godfather reflects the events that were happening in the United States, both during the production of the movie and the book. The novel The Godfather was written in 1969, a year after the assassination of both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. (Winograd 413). In addition, 1966, only a few years before the novel was written, brought about significant, sometimes violent crime-related events in the nation's history, such as the formation of the Black Panther party, mass protests due to drafting procedures, and the launching of the Cultural Revolution by Mao Zedong (Winograd 413). While the time period in which the novel takes place is the late-forties and early fifties, the impressions these events had on the creation of the novel are undeniable, since the themes they represent are timeless. However, in terms of factors that would have had effects on the fictional characters during the time, it is likely that the recent World War II, and subsequent Cold War, would have had profound effects, especially economically, which would have forced a large number of people into lives of crime, creating the reluctant criminal air that The Godfather, both the movie and the novel, are now famous for (Klerks 55). In fact, it is likely that Mario Puzo, the author of the novel, decided that crime had reached such a level that it was time to look back on it and see it from a different perspective, which his novel aimed to do. As for events surrounding the creation of the film, it is difficult to pin down any surefire influences, since the film borrows most of its plot from the book, but the continuation of the Vietnam War likely had at least some influence on the film, as it did with virtually every other facet of American life (Winograd 414).
In addition, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which was passed as a part of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, likely marked what people would consider to be the final nail in the coffin for major organized crime in the United States (Arlacchi 29). The passing of this measure instantly put the organized crime syndicates in the United States into remission, and shifted public feelings about the mafia in general from fear to curiosity, which presented itself the perfect opportunity to create the movie, although it is likely that the passing of that measure was a mere coincidence, it nevertheless worked out perfectly for the producers, who enjoyed rave reviews and profits from the movie (Arlacchi 29). It should be noted that, like the novel, the movie adaptation of The Godfather actually takes place during the same time period as the novel, the late-forties and early fifties, yet, similar to the novel, the themes that affected its production had influences on the work that were more timeless, and the fact that the ramifications from these events were not directly perceptible in the movie's plot are irrelevant, as their themes were constant, thus, the time period was not important.
In terms of the technological circumstances and limitations in place around the time the film was produced, there are a few. Naturally, the lack of any real advanced computers at the time meant that any "special effects" for the movie had to come from either camera work or extravagant props and the like. To that end, the most popular scenes in the film are likely remembered fondly simply because of the way they were executed. For example, in the scene where Sonny Corleone is killed by a drive-by shooting at the Jones Beach Causeway toll plaza featured four cameras filming simultaneously, and had the actor's suit rigged with a large number of vials of fake blood that exploded when he was "shot" (Schatz 20). Another famous scene involving more primitive special effects involves the placement of the horse head, which was actually real, in the bed of one of the characters (Schatz 20). Scenes such as this helped to establish the movie as one that pulled no punches, in a manner of speaking, and helped to create a window into the world of organized crime, warts and all.
The lack of any real computers or other movie magic forced the producers to focus largely on the performances of the actors, camera work, and engaging music and sound effects in order to make the movie as authentic and powerful as possible. To that end, there was a large amount of creative camera-work, such as the opening shot of the movie, where Bonasera is asking the Godfather for help (Schatz 16). This scene features a long, slow pullback, and ends with a behind-the-back view of the Godfather, which frames the picture (Schatz 13). Smooth camera work such as this is arguably more effective than even the most elaborate of special effects, and provided viewers with an example of how mere simple elements can make a movie equally as engrossing as other, fancier movies, such as Star Wars, which was released only a few years after The Godfather.
The casting of The Godfather was the other way the movie was able to overcome any real special effects or mindless action in order to keep viewers enthralled. This can be seen in the casting of Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone, whose performance is revered simply because of how low-key it was (Arlacchi 20). Brando's effectiveness stems from his performance exploring the more reluctant side of the mafia, who were, at the time, generally seen as cruel, with greedy, merciless mob bosses overseeing them. Brando, who was already peaceful and relatively low-key, played a similarly peaceful yet firm mob boss, who strongly believed in family values and justice, which gave the character a certain amount of relatable charm for the audience, even those who had no interest in the organized crime scene of the United States. The other popular casting choice for the movie was Al Pachino, who played the role of budding crime boss Micheal Corleone (Schatz 12).
The dichotomy between the time period the film was released in and when it was released creates a distinct mix of cultural references, both direct and indirect. One of the overarching themes of the movie is the gradual turning of a criminal syndicate into a somewhat shady, but nevertheless benevolent, entity. This is perhaps representative of the crackdowns on organized crime that were happening in both the fifties, when the book and movie take place, and the early seventies, when the film was produced, and, a few years before that, the book was written (Klerks 64). Other happenings in the movie, such as the eventual death of the head of the Corleone family, are further indicative of the numerous hardships these families had to undergo throughout these crackdowns, and how these hardships eventually led to their demise. Furthermore, the infighting between the five primary mafia families represented further fragmentation of organized crime, who were as much a threat to each other as they were to anyone else (Arlacchi 14).
While The Godfather was no doubt a timeless movie, the influences that the movie both took inspired and utilized were tantamount to its production. It is as much an educational piece about the rigors of crime life as it is a snapshot of the life of an average organized crime family. For that reason, it is easy to look at the film and appreciate its merits on both of those fronts, especially considering how the film manages to be effective with limited special effects, or any technology at all, for that matter, save for cameras and the like. It is for these reasons, along with several others, that The Godfather was tremendously successful, and will be remembered as one of the greatest movies of all time.
Arlacchi, Pino. Mafia business: the mafia ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Vol. 3. London: Verso, 1986. 20-30
Klerks, Peter. "The network paradigm applied to criminal organizations: Theoretical nitpicking or a relevant doctrine for investigators? Recent developments in the Netherlands." Connections 24.3 (2001): 53-65.
Schatz, Thomas. "The New Hollywood." Film theory goes to the movies (1993): 8-36.
Winograd, Eugene, and William A. Killinger. "Relating age at encoding in early childhood to adult recall: Development of flashbulb memories." Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 112.3 (1983): 413-414.