With ‘Apocalypse Now’ (directed by F.F. Coppola too) it’s considered by critics worldwide to be one of the greatest films of all time. Let’s find out why.
The movie which would change the course of cinema history first took root in 1967 when Peter Bart (Vice-president of Paramount Pictures) received the rough draft of a book written by a relatively unknown 47 year-old Italian American called Mario Puzo. The novel was called ‘The Godfather’. Bart started reading it and was utterly enthralled by the first sixty pages when he had a flash of inspiration. This story of Puzo’s was more than just the usual mafia story full of shootings, bloodbaths and punch ups.
This was a genuine family drama seen through the weary eyes of the ailing Patriarch Don Vito Corleone, a Sicilian immigrant to New York at the turn of the Twentieth century. Bart took up the phone and – obviously – made Puzo an offer he couldn’t refuse! Eighty thousand dollars to make a movie adaptation of his book which over the years would sell millions of copies.
At the time Puzo was a heavy gambler with serious debts. He accepted the offer straight away. Meanwhile Paramount felt they had seen enough of mafia movie, but Bart was utterly convinced and over a series of meetings managed to persuade the sceptics to see things his way.
The main part of Don Vito went to Marlon Brando, at the time forty-seven years of age, but still youthful in appearance so that it was up to the makeup artist (cotton wool under his lip and even dentures in order to change the shape of his jaw-line) to turn him into the most iconic figure of his entire career. Brando was the brilliant idea of Francis Ford Coppola, a director who had barely begun his career in 1971 but had been chosen by the production company to placate the Italian community after Sergio Leone turned down the chance to direct the movie.
The film maker from Detroit immediately fell in love with the project and fought with everybody in Paramount to get total artistic freedom, digging in his heels for months and achieving his own personal triumph (aka the Oscar in 1973 for the best non-original screenplay written together with Puzo). Coppola would not give an inch on the rest of the cast either, starting with Al Pacino (another underdog back in 1971), who was chosen instead of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman because he looked like a true Sicilian.
Other winning choices were James Caan (Sonny Corleone), Robert Duvall (Tom Hagen), Diane Keaton (Kay Adams, Michael’s WASP wife), Richard S. Castellano (Peter Clemenza) and a marvellous Talia Shire (Connie Corleone).
To round off a stellar cast we have to mention the magnificent performance of John Cazale as Fredo, the shy, awkward Corleone brother, one of the most nuanced characters in the entire history of cinema. Cazale would die of lung cancer in 1978, but Hollywood remembers him still as the only actor in the world who appeared in only five movies all of which were nominated for a plethora of Oscars (John would also appear in ‘The Godfather – Part II’, ‘The Conversation’, ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and the marvellous ‘Deerhunter’).
At that point all that was missing was the reception of the public who, from the American première were enchanted by the terrific music of Nino Rota and the intense family saga where Coppola had been so careful not to express any moral judgement on how that family made their living.
Because even though ‘The Godfather’ would deal with violent criminals, the main impression it leaves is the story of an ordinary family, even a normal family… And that, in a Hollywood that had always treated redskins and gangsters as baddies was a historic breakthrough which had a massive impact on the collective imagination. And maybe sowed the seeds of Quentin Tarantino’s pulp fiction twenty years before its time.