Economic vs. Political Subtexts in "The Godfather"

May 8, 2008

One of the more interesting bits I remember from “The Kid Stays In The Picture” is Robert Evans’ memory of “The Godfather” and the difficulties surrounding its production. Francis Ford Coppola was an untested director who wanted to bring an absolutely unique interpretation of Mario Puzo’s novel to the screen. Instead of another rote crime drama, he saw “The Godfather” as an allegory for American capitalism.

Enough time had passed between seeing “The Godfather” and “The Kid Stays In The Picture” that I couldn’t remember much in the way of that subtext and I’d never heard a reference to it before. Now another year has passed since the last time I saw “The Godfather” and I’ve been presented with another allegory. According to J. Hulsman and A. Mitchell in the LA Times, via abu muqawama,

It is one of the best-known scenes in cinematic history. Vito Corleone, head of one of the most powerful organized-crime families in New York, crosses the street to buy some oranges from a fruit stand. Seconds later, his peaceful idyll is shattered as multiple gunshots leave him bleeding in the street - victim of a hit by Mafia rival Virgil “the Turk” Sollozzo.

By a miracle, he is only badly wounded. Two of his sons, Santino (Sonny) and Michael, and his adopted son and consigliere, Tom Hagen, gather in an atmosphere of shock to try to decide how to save the family.

This, of course, is the hinge of Francis Ford Coppola’s movie, “The Godfather.” It is also a startlingly useful metaphor for the strategic problems and global power structure of our time. The don, emblematic of Cold War American power, is struck by forces he did not expect and does not understand, as was America on 9/11. Intriguingly, his heirs embrace very different visions of family strategy that approximate the three schools of thought - liberal institutionalism, neoconservatism and realism - vying for control of U.S. foreign policy today.

For obvious chronological reasons this wasn’t an intentional parallel on Coppola’s part, but the idea strikes me as particularly interesting. Between the two different interpretations, and spurred on not a little by my presently cobwebbed political science degree, I think I’ll need to see “The Godfather” again. Soon. Preferably before someone proposes some third theory of interpretation I need to take into account.

Original story, via abu muqawama, hat tip to KMG.