Lessons of The Godfather

Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather was one of the biggest bestsellers ever. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part One and Part Two, are often placed near the top on lists of the greatest movies ever made. But is there anything else to these stories besides violence and well-dressed criminals?

The movies – and to a lesser extent, the novel – get to me in several ways. At one level, The Godfather draws me in just because it is about serious people. The Corleone family are very focused on their enterprises. They are not trifling or easily distracted. They deal in matters of life and death, and they generally decide these matters with great planning and deliberation. Things do not turn out well for the people in the story who act impulsively or venally.

Furthermore, the Corleones have discipline. They are trying to get something done and they toe the line in the effort. The Corleones value loyalty to the group. Renegades and deviants do not fare well in this world. In addition, the Corleones have a culture of accumulated wisdom. Don Corleone’s ideas are what steer the family through its trials.

It is a rare thing in a motion picture to see serious people acting rationally and strategically, and even if it is in the irrational context of crime, it is a pleasure to watch. The book, but even more the movies, convey a kind of weight that is lacking from most stories. These people are so wonderfully not frivolous!

You might think that this sort of seriousness might be found in other stories about business, i.e. legitimate business, but there aren’t a lot of examples of this. I can think of one outstanding exception: Executive Suite. Most books and movies about business usually portray executives as ridiculous or amoral. At least The Godfather doesn’t portray its characters as ridiculous.

Nina Foch and William Holden in “Executive Suite.”

In a way, that the Corleones’ enterprise is crime is almost incidental. While they use violence to solve problems, we don’t see the day-to-day criminal activity that is the foundation of the their empire. We don’t see the gambling parlors or the union racketeering or any of the rest of it. We do know that the Corleones won’t touch prostitution or drugs, which makes them slightly less abhorrent, if not exactly noble.

The first two Godfather movies – the only ones worth considering – feature two exquisite characters: father and son Vito and Michael Corleone. (The concept of the exquisite refers to a portrayal of character that is at once archetypal and concretely realistic. Such a portrayal involves the integration of unexpected or even paradoxical attributes. For more on the exquisite, see my essay “The Bust of Caesar.”)

What makes Vito’s character exquisite is the juxtaposition of a ruthless violence with a style of reasonableness and traditional values. Vito is not some Scarface-like screaming maniac. He is imperturbable. He is willing to negotiate. (Although his idea of negotiating sometimes involves making you an offer you can’t refuse.) Further, and this is clearer in the novel than in the film, he is straight-laced about sex – he expresses contempt for one of the other Family leaders for being a pimp. And he does not wish to get into the drug business.

Michael describes Vito to his future wife Kay as a man of great responsibility, like a senator or a governor. And that’s part of the key to Vito’s character: he is the head of a family and he takes care of that family. He has a certain kind of twisted parentalism, as befits the moniker “godfather.”

Another element of Vito’s character is that he believes himself to live in a corrupt, dog-eat-dog world. As a refugee from Sicilian Mafia violence who emigrates as a child to the jungle of Little Italy, he is somewhat justified in this belief. He sees society as a great war of all against all. And the morality of war is different from the morality of peace. In a world of war, it is Machiavelli’s rules that apply, not Jefferson’s. Vito is a lot like The Fountainhead‘s Gail Wynand in this regard.

Vito has no taste for cruelty, however, and although he is quite comfortable with ruthless coercion, he would never harm a woman or a child. He is not a sociopath. He is just making sure that he and his are safe in a world fraught with peril.

We could take the Corleones to be modern-day Medicis, a dynasty using cunning and the occasional act of violence in order to survive and prosper in ever-dangerous times. If Italian Renaissance history is not your thing, we could compare the crime families in The Godfather to the Great Houses of Frank Herbert’s Dune, who are into vendettas, poisons and swordplay.

Lorenzo de Medici

By either analogy the Corleones can be seen as a kind of nobility, at least in the fantasy world they occupy. Perhaps we might see nobility in general as the ability to maintain dynastic survival in a world of violent competitiveness: nobility as evolutionary fitness over the long term. If you are a force to be reckoned with, you are noble, but if you are a wood chip in the flood, you are of no account and are common.

Vito’s son Michael is similar to his father in some ways and different in others, but is still exquisite. Like Vito, Michael is a “reasonable man.” He is ruthless, too. And he does not enjoy cruelty for cruelty’s sake. But he is not rooted in traditional values and except for one romantic encounter, which significantly takes place in Italy rather than America, he is cold. Almost the first thing he does after his father dies and he assumes unequivocal command of the Corleone Family is to murder the heads of all the other five families in New York. This goes beyond what is necessary, since only two of the other families had plotted against him. His father never felt it necessary to be the only one left standing: Michael is driven by a desire for safety, which is nice way of saying that he is paranoid.

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone

At the same time his men are butchering half the gangsters of New York he also has his sister’s husband garrotted, because he was a traitor. In doing so, Michael wounds his sister enormously. This, Vito would never have done. In The Godfather, Part Two, Michael’s paranoia escalates until he drives off his wife and his adopted brother. Then he has his real brother murdered.

To understand the message of Michael’s life, we might wish to consider a concept that has long circulated through the Objectivist and libertarian worlds: the prudent predator. This type embodies the question: what if you could commit crimes with virtually no chance of getting caught? Wouldn’t doing so be in your “rational self-interest”? I believe the answer to this question to be No. My point, however, is not to rejoin that debate but to note that Michael Corleone is a great example of the type. And The Godfather, especially Part Two, has something to say about the type, because it chronicles what happens to a prudent predator.

The type has been dealt with in literature before. One common device in good stories about evil, like The Godfather and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, is to show that even when evil does not get punished by the law, it still suffers by its internal logic. Call it “the operation of cosmic justice.” It is the operation of this principle that makes the Godfather stories moral, even though none of the major characters is ever tried for his crimes.

One reason why the prudent predator is impractical is that he sees other people not as people, but as objects to be used. This view is not conducive to the good life, needless to say. Michael never gets arrested, but he does become a social atom. He is capable of hurting anyone, even his own brother, and by the conclusion of The Godfather, Part Two, he is a solitary being, living in his beautiful lakeside house with his haunted memories. If the survival of the fittest is the rule you choose to live by, then as the winner you get to survive by yourself.

You might think that Vito is a prudent predator as well, but Vito is too well connected to other people. Maybe his connection to others and his somewhat traditional values are just superficial. Maybe deep down he could become like Michael. But he gets through life without descending to that depth. I would say that this is because he is from an Old World culture.

Vito doesn’t get through life unscathed, however. He is shot and badly wounded by rival criminals because he refuses to modernize by entering the drug trade with them. His traditional values, if that’s what they are, are not enough to protect him from the logic of criminal “progress.” An Old World man like Vito is not going to flourish in the remorseless evolutionary struggle of the New World. But if the modern American world forces a Vito to die or become a Michael, and if that world forces a Michael to become a murderous robot, then can we say that being a prudent predator pays?

So what do Part One and Part Two add up to? Part One chronicles the descent of a once good man into evil. Part Two shows how he suffers due to his fall, while also showing his father’s rise. In the long run, the Medici approach might work for a time among rooted, Old World, types, especially in the Old World where clients look to their patrons with loyalty, but it does not work among “individualistic” Americans, who eventually force godfathers to become monsters. Michael ends up like a shark, the perfectly ruthless killer whose fate it is to swim alone.

At the level of Michael’s character, we could see the Godfather movies as a tragedy. Michael’s tragic flaw is loyalty to his father, whom he sees as a great man. This loyalty is what motivates him to join the family business and commit his first murders when his father’s life is in danger. (Francis Ford Coppola’s friend George Lucas tried to craft a similar tragic flaw for Anakin Skywalker in the second Star Wars trilogy, but it was not convincing.)

Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker

So the Godfather stories are at once a tragedy, a portrayal of human seriousness and twisted nobility and a commentary on the prudent predator. Such richness is what makes great art. But there is an additional dimension.

One overarching theme of the story, in my opinion, is the importance of creating a just society. In a society like Sicily or big city America, would-be great men are crushed and have to resort to violence to protect their self-esteem and the ones they love. No doubt some men rose to legitimate greatness from such a milieu, but it probably took a titanic struggle and an almost irrational optimism to do so. It would be understandable for other men to think they had to play by Machiavelli’s rules.

I don’t think that in the end The Godfather is really about crime and criminals. For one thing, the Corleones are a fantasy. Real criminals are almost all thugs, not Renaissance princes. And crime just doesn’t carry that much thematic weight. So what is the story about if not crime?

One way to understand a novel or movie is to look at its social context. For example, the movie The Untouchables, which tells the story of Eliot Ness’s pursuit of Al Capone, is “really” about the War on Drugs and how we have to embrace ruthless means to fight it. On the other hand, Public Enemies, which tells the somewhat similar story of Melvin Purvis’ pursuit of John Dillinger, is about the War on Terror and how we have degraded ourselves by the way we have fought it. The Untouchables is from 1987 and Public Enemies is from 2009, and this is not mere coincidence.

The social context in which The Godfather stories were created was threefold: 1. the Civil Rights Movement, which had turned to Black Power, because a number of vocal African-Americans believed that America’s 300-year war against black people was not going to be ended by a few Congressional acts. 2. The Vietnam War, which showed that even the Federal government could not be trusted. 3. The battle against police corruption, especially in New York City, which revealed the dirtiness of the law. (This third story is taken up in another movie with Al Pacino, Serpico.) The Godfather, novel and movies, are a commentary on what happens when the social contract is not honored and indeed is not honorable.

The Godfather illustrates what happens if injustice, oppression and corruption are allowed to create conditions of war in American society. The oppressed turn to violence and domination in an attempt to protect themselves and to establish a reliable social order. A certain type of powerful person will either try to rise within a just society or exercise his power to create a new one, in this case, a society within a society. And such men will exploit opportunities created by society, especially victimless crime, the laws against which are after all another form of injustice and oppression.

These attempts to establish a safe and prosperous zone outside of mainstream society do not work, of course. In fact, they engender something that is as bad as the conditions that spawned them. But ambitious, intelligent and indomitable men will create their “families” or gangs or sometimes even new religions, if they are not allowed to achieve their greatness through normal channels.

But as I say, the criminal class is beside the point: The Godfather stories aren’t about criminals: They are about great men who will not be squelched. They are about 1960s radicals. They are about Malcolm X. If you don’t want a war of all against all, then those in power and those who can influence those in power must establish a just society. That was a message for The Godfather‘s time, and for ours.

“Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.”
Malcolm X

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life.

6 thoughts on “Lessons of The Godfather

  1. This is exactly how I feel about the Godfather. I think people have to accept the world as a “dog eat dog world” and do what they must, of course legally, to survive, provide, and protect their families. Furthermore, I thought I was the only one to compare the philosophy and character of Malcom X and Vito. This excellent article sir. I have it bookmarked and I’ve also printed it out. Thanks

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  3. I watched the trilogy and absolutely appreciated the film. But I felt in the end as what he gained after trying so hard to protect his family. Michael loses his most important thing in world ,his daughter. All after butchering all those who had tried to rise above him. Your article gave pretty good idea about the entire theme of novel. But I still haven’t got what was that one thing Mario puzzo wanted to depict through out all the story.

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