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 Corleones lifes work. However, in an inversion of the democratic process, such "freedom" comes at a price; for the Undertaker, who kisses his Godfathers 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 Godfathers
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
Corleones murdered son.
The Undertakers 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 Corleones son. As a result, Corleones younger son, Michael, is forced to avenge his brothers 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 Corleones 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.
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.