There were surely people at the first showing of The Godfather upon its release on March 15, 1972, who understood that the film they were seeing was the best motion picture made up to that time—and might have foreseen that this would be true to this very day.
“This very day” is a phrase spoken by Don Vito Corleone in the movie’s first scene, about the punishment the Mafia boss might have inflicted on the would-be rapists of the daughter of the undertaker who has come to ask for vengeance—had the undertaker come to him first rather than to the court system, and paid him proper obeisance as “the godfather” of the title.
I have no doubt that many readers instantly spotted my use of that phrase, and even heard Marlon Brando’s voice in their head as they read it—a mark of how even minor lines in The Godfather reverberate in the national consciousness, just like the far better known “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” “It’s not personal, Sonny, it’s strictly business,” and two dozen others in the most-quoted screenplay ever written.
But back to that first day of The Godfather’s release, exactly four decades ago. The movie’s greatness—and it is arguably the great American work of popular art—was not evident to the cultural doyens of the day. Early critical attention was respectful, and even celebratory, but utterly uncomprehending about the enduring nature of the achievement of Francis Ford Coppola’s movie.
That same year the powerful film version of the Broadway musical Cabaret was released, and it was far more favorably reviewed. When Oscar time rolled around, Cabaret took eight and The Godfather only three—including the notorious Brando victory, accepted by an actress named Marie Cruz who declared she was an Indian activist named “Sacheen Littlefeather” and was rejecting the award on Brando’s behalf because of the mistreatment of Native Americans. Cabaret’s director, Bob Fosse, won the Academy Award rather than Coppola. Given the nature of the Cabaret steamroller, it came as a shock that The Godfather beat it out for Best Picture.
So why wasn’t it celebrated properly at the time? The answer has to do with the nature of cultural orthodoxy in 1972. Primarily, The Godfather couldn’t possibly be great—indeed, it would have seemed crazy to apply the word “great” to it—because it was derived from a potboiling bestseller with dirty sex scenes (read aloud in every junior high school locker room, and in every summer camp bunk, from 1969 onward) that had sold as well as it did in part because its author’s Italian surname suggested he had some deep inside scoop on the growth of the Mafia.
How could a somewhat disreputable work of literary hackery, this whoring after sales, be the source material for something enduring? Certainly The Godfather was good, but it was good of its kind; it was not an elevated work and could not therefore be elevated itself into any kind of pantheon.
Not to mention that The Godfather was an extraordinarily violent gangster movie, among whose memorable scenes was Sonny Corleone being riddled with 56 bullets at a toll booth, Luca Brasi’s hand pinioned to a bar by an icepick and the life choked out of him in closeup, Michael Corleone shooting a police captain in the throat, and Moe Greene getting it in the eye on a massage table. How could such admittedly well-staged horrors be part of anything that could be called art?
In retrospect, the achievement of The Godfather is that it is the summa of all great moviemaking before it. It combines the shock and sizzle of the 1930s gangster movie with the epic scope of the films of John Ford and David Lean. It blends the youthful power of the French New Wave of the 1950s with the generational subject matter of the great family melodramas of the postwar Italian master Luchino Visconti. And while its source material might have been Mario Puzo’s readable junk, it declared its medium’s arrogant ambition to supplant literary fiction as the chronicler of the national story with its opening line: “I believe in America.”
I could go on about the movie’s effect on the culture—among other things, cinematographer Gordon Willis’s dark palette and evocation of Life magazine photography of the 1940s literally changed the way Americans picture the country’s past. But in the end, The Godfather matters not because of what it did, or the alterations it helped bring about in our culture, for good and ill. We can see in its standing today, as an American classic, that it matters because it is the most impressive achievement of imaginative storytelling in the most important cultural form of the 20th century.