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The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)     Stasia McGehee 12/8/97


The American Dream - A Revision of the Self-made Man

Vito Corleone, the towering patriarch of The Godfather, is a self-made man; his life represents a variation upon the American Dream - the potential for the immigrant, through perseverance and hard work, to earn a decent living and care for his own. However, the opening scene illustrates that the sanctioned methods of advancement have been abandoned. In a confessional tone, the Undertaker approaches the Godfather with a request for Justice. While his daughter lies broken and disfigured, the assailants are freed by an incompetent judicial system.

The Godfather rebukes him for ever going to the police in the first place. It takes a personal tragedy for the Undertaker to acknowledge what the Godfather has known all along - that the official avenues of justice are ineffective; redressing this need has been Vito Corleone’s life’s work. However, in an inversion of the democratic process, such "freedom" comes at a price; for the Undertaker, who kisses his Godfather’s hand in a ceremonial gesture of respect, now owes him a favor, and is thereby implicated in "the family business".

Justice and Retribution - the Escalation of Violence

In The Godfather violence never solves the dilemma at hand but merely defers and escalates the tension, which is not exhausted until all who are caught up in the crossfire have been exterminated. When the Undertaker finally seeks such justice from the Godfather, after years of avoiding him, it is both ironic, allegorical and prophetic; for as the Godfather’s act of retribution was meant to atone for the brutal disfigurement of the abused daughter, the mortician is called upon to reconstruct the ravaged countenance of Corleone’s murdered son.

The Undertaker’s unholy alliance was borne out of a paternal desire for justice. This same impulse, untrammeled over the years, is transformed into the all-consuming desire for revenge that ultimately destroys Vito Corleone’s son. As a result, Corleone’s younger son, Michael, is forced to avenge his brother’s death, before fleeing to a pastoral haven of Sicily. However, the deceptively idyllic setting offered by the Old World villa of Corleone, is presented as a cautionary tale. When Michael notices that are no menfolk in Corleone, he is told that they were all killed off in feuds, casualties of an amplified sense of honor. Similarly, when the Corleone’s take their sense of honor and justice to the new world, the democratic quest for justice is revised into an Old Testament demand for equal retribution, until the violence escalates towards an apocalyptic ending.

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This page last updated on December 8th, 1997.
Copyright 1997 Stasia McGehee.

Written for
History of Cinema, Susan Tavernetti, F/TV-042.-0IL, DeAnza College, Cupertino, CA, Fall 1997.