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The classic movie The Godfather arrived in cinemas 40 years ago this month-and changed the course of film history.
The film was adapted from Mario Puzo’s 1969 book of the same name, which became an immediate best seller. Set after World War II, it tells the story of the Corleone crime family, in New York, and how power transfers from the title character, patriarch Vito Corleone, to his youngest son, Michael.
Paramount Pictures bought the rights to the book shortly after its publication and eventually hired a then-unknown director named Francis Ford Coppola to helm the project.
Coppola and Puzo collaborated on the screenplay. However, the director’s relationship with Paramount wasn’t as harmonious during filming. Coppola attempted to give the film a more epic look, which the studio felt would just be a waste of money since it envisioned a low budget film.
Paramount’s biggest complaint about Coppola, however, was in his casting decisions. He wanted Marlon Brando to play Vito, but Brando had developed a reputation for being difficult by the 1970s and few studios wanted to hire him. Paramount also disliked Coppola’s choice of Al Pacino for Michael. Pacino was unknown at that point and the studio wanted an established star to play Michael, such as Robert Redford or Ryan O’Neal.
Coppola, however, stood his ground and stood to lose everything if the film failed. However, The Godfather proved to have the opposite impact. It made Coppola a legend and re-established Brando as a star. It also made stars of basically everyone else who acted in the movie, including Pacino. James Caan, Robert Duvall and John Cazale were rightfully acclaimed for their performances as Brando’s other sons, as were Talia Shire (Coppola’s sister) as his daughter, and Diane Keaton as Michael’s wife.
The film also had memorable music composed by Nino Rota and Coppola’s father, Carmine. It also had several lines of dialogue which became famous. These include “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” and “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
The film would go on to win Oscars for Best Picture, Screenplay and Actor for Brando (who famously refused the honor to protest the treatment of Native Americans in the movies). Its success led to two sequels, both of which focused on Michael as the new head of the family. The first sequel, The Godfather Part II (1974), also won the Oscar for Best Picture, as well as five other Oscars. Some say that it is superior to the first film. The Godfather Part III (1990) is not as highly regarded as its two predecessors, but it did have its moments.
More important, however, is that The Godfather became the yardstick by which all films about the mafia have been measured. Without it, we may never have seen Goodfellas (1990) or even the TV series The Sopranos. It has also been brought up in comparison with other types of films. For instance, I once read an article which called The Deer Hunter (1978), “The Godfather of war films.”
If that’s not a lasting legacy, I don’t know what is. Watching the film is truly an offer you can’t refuse.