Fact and Fiction in The Godfather
"An Offer He Couldn't Refuse"
The Godfather, Part I (1972) and The Godfather, Part II (1974) are considered masterpieces of American cinema. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and written by Coppola and Mario Puzo, the author of the novel that started the Godfather legend, these two works rank among the best films ever made. (Most critics felt that The Godfather, Part III (1990), a second sequel by Puzo and Coppola, didn't match the quality of its predecessors. Die-hard Godfather fans expressed their disappointment when it was released, and today it's generally relegated to footnote status when speaking of the Godfather saga.)
But more than just a series of movies, The Godfather is a cultural phenomenon, frequently referred to and often quoted. Some people have used it as a business guide while others consider it a primer on personal conduct in a treacherous world. Phrases like "I made him an offer he couldn't refuse" and "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes" are as well-known as the faces of the movie stars who played the lead characters. Marlon Brando with his stuffed cheeks as Don Vito Corleone and Al Pacino with his smoldering, about-to-explode glare as the Don's youngest son Michael are instantly recognizable to the general public.
The films brought a new public awareness to the American Mafia, and many of the characters and events portrayed in those films are based on actual mobsters and their deeds. The works are so compelling that most viewers (and some members of the mob as well) have come to believe that Italian-American mobsters are indeed "men of honor," Robin Hoods who defy the law and abide by a higher code. But the Godfather films have also come under criticism for romanticizing gangsters and giving them an undeserved patina of nobility by presenting them as characters worthy of Shakespearean tragedy.
In order to make the hierarchy of the fictional Corleone crime family heroes, Coppola and Puzo had to create rival Mafiosi who were morally corrupt and duplicitous. Don Vito Corleone is presented as tough but fair-minded, just, and often benevolent—at least to those who don't cross him and therefore deserve his retribution. Interestingly, the creators of The Godfather spent little screen time on the day-to-day criminal activities of the Corleone family. The impression left by the first film is that the poor Corleones are just minding their own business when suddenly they come under attack, their patriarch gunned down in the street. In presenting the Corleones as "good" bad guys versus their rivals who are portrayed as "bad" bad guys, Coppola and Puzo gain the audience's sympathies for their protagonists who are essentially villainous themselves.