The following won third place in the Expository/Argumentative Essay division of the Walter Spara Writing Contest sponsored by the Department of English and Communications in the spring semester, 2012.
by Travis Swann
The Godfather: Cultural Value
One may not have believed that a movie, produced in 1972, involving an entwinement of violence and family love would develop into a cinematic masterpiece and fuel two equally commendable sequels, essentially setting a demanding standard for films of the gangster-genre for many years to come. Such a production is credited to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy, based off of Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel, The Godfather. Being dubbed a movie masterpiece by audiences and critics, The Godfather trilogy has earned its title through the compelling portrayal of an Italian family’s rise to power in the United States. With such a powerful storyline, The Godfather trilogy easily relates to the average American, an individual whose family has immigrated to the United States with the hope and determination of living a successful life. Despite forty years since its making, The Godfather and its sequels continue to appeal to the media and a wide range of audiences. The Godfather trilogy appeals to people through not only its entertainment value with violence and an intricate plot, but also its cultural value as an influential movie that portrays the struggles for the American Dream and the historic rich Italian culture.
Cultural value of The Godfather trilogy can be found in its portrayal of the American Dream, and essentially American culture. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as stated in the United States Declaration of Independence, is the basis for the idea of the American Dream. Historian James Truslow Adams describes the American Dream in his book, Epic of America, as a “dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement” (214). Adams goes on to say that the American Dream is not merely about material and monetary wealth, but rather a dream of social order in which every person will be able to attain the fullest stature that they are innately capable of reaching, and that each man and women can be recognized by others for what he or she is, regardless of his or her fortuitous circumstances of birth or position (214-215). The story of the Godfather, Vito Corleone, as depicted in The Godfather part II, is a story about how a poor immigrant realizes the American Dream by hard work, discipline and devotion to the family. Vito Corleone quickly realizes that in America, money, power and respect are closely related. Because the American Dream of success through wealth and power has been implemented as one of the primary goals in American culture, the romanticized portrayal of it in The Godfather trilogy has appealed to the majority of American viewers. In her review of The Godfather, Roberta Chappetta suggests that the movie gives Americans knowledge of the price sometimes paid to achieve the American Dream. For instance, both America and the Corleone family have a history of bloodshed that was deemed necessary in order to defend its power and interest (Thill). America has its wars, such as World War II end with the bombing of Japan, and the on-going conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq to protect American security, the American way of life and America’s energy needs, while the Corleones have their illegal rackets and mob wars to protect their security, way of life and what they perceive as their needs. Through this comparison, the good and bad aspects of the American Dream and Italian culture are exposed.
The Godfather trilogy follows Michael Corleone’s success in America as he rises as the patriarch of the family business, but with that rise to power, one can see Michael’s simultaneous transformation into a vengeful murderer. The Corleone family goes from being poor to prosperous and influential over two generations, but at the sacrifice of family members, friends, and individual moral values. The Middle Eastern countries currently occupied by the American military and many of neighboring countries have the same concerns. The portrayal of the American Dream within the movies serves to relate to the viewer’s life, but it also serves as a reminder of the corruption involved in such a dream of power and success. With this insight into American and Italian culture, The Godfather trilogy has maintained its popularity among natural born Americans and immigrants (Mannino 221).
Appealing not only to American culture, The Godfather trilogy maintains its cultural value as it portrays Italian and Italian-American culture. According to Gay Talese, author of Honor Thy Father, a classic nonfiction book about the Italian mob, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is a straightforward story about how Italian-American families assimilated into American culture with the exception of gambling and murder (Barra). By portraying the Italian immigrant and his struggles in America, The Godfather trilogy obtains cultural value as it reminds audiences of either their ancestor’s struggles in America, or the roots of their American heritage. Italian-American communities are often characterized by strong family ties, the Catholic Church, fraternal organizations, and political parties (Pozzetta 991-993). The strong family relationship and devotion to the Catholic Church of Italian culture are prevalent throughout The Godfather trilogy; especially in part I during Connie and Carlo’s wedding. Traditional to Italian Roman Catholics, the couple’s wedding at the beginning of The Godfather part I is lively, complete with music, dancing, eating, and many friends and especially family members.
The Godfather trilogy’s cultural value, in regards to Italian ethnic roots, follows history with accuracy. Beyond the second generation of Italian-Americans, families began adopting American practices, such as smaller families and the use of English language within the household due to the intermixing of other American cultures (Pozzetta 991). This departure from ethnic roots can be seen throughout The Godfather trilogy as the Corleone family begins to include non-Italians in the family business and stray from Italian traditions. For example, in The Godfather part II, Frank Pentangeli, a long-time family friend of the Corleones, complains about the lack of traditional Italian food at a family gathering. Later in part II, Pentangeli accuses Michael of placing a business relationship above the interest of the family, “You give your loyalty to a Jew before your own blood” (qtd. in Poon 192), once again illustrating the importance of family in the Italian culture. As The Godfather trilogy illustrates Italian and American culture within the movies, it manages to have an effect on culture outside itself.
The cultural value of The Godfather trilogy lies within not only its appeals to American and Italian cultures, but also its influence on American language, movies, television shows, and video games. Chris Messenger suggests in his book, The Godfather and American Culture: How the Corleones Became “Our Gang” that “phrases from The Godfather have made their way into our language” (qtd. in Mannino 218). A few popular phrases include, “leave the gun, take the cannoli,” “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “I know it was you Fredo,” and “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business.” These lines have assimilated into the American language to the point that their meaning is understood with little to no knowledge of The Godfather trilogy. This familiarity of phrases is done in part by their usage in other movies and television shows, such as Mafia!, a spoof of The Godfather, and The Simpsons. In the movie, Sleepless in Seattle, Tom Hanks references The Godfather throughout the movie. He uses The Godfather’s famous quote, “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business” more than once concerning the takeover of a small book store by his large chain of book stores. Also borrowed and rehashed by popular media is The Godfather trilogy’s representation of organized crime families. Video games such as Rockstar’s The Godfather: The Game and Illusion Softwork’s Mafia have help spark a worldwide fascination with the mob image. Even popular social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace have included their own version of mob-like games; all of them inspired by the enduring legacy of The Godfather (history.com).
As one can see, The Godfather trilogy holds cultural value in its portrayal of American and Italian culture as well as its replication in numerous forms of popular media. Given the status of a “classic movie”, The Godfather, along with its sequels, The Godfather part II and The Godfather part III, offers audiences a trilogy that extirpates the roots of American culture and reveals the basis of the American Dream. The Corleone story not only touches on American values, but also gives insight into the Italian-American experience and his or her family’s history. It may also portray how many Americans assimilated some of the Italian culture. With regard to its captivating message and portrayals, The Godfather trilogy has influenced movies, telivision shows, video games, and American vernacular. By analyzing the trilogy’s cultural value, one can find that The Godfather trilogy is essentially the story of America. It is in this story that one sees how the trilogy has come to be an icon in cinematic productions.
Adams, James Truslow. The Epic of America. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1931. Print
Barra, Allen. “What Puzo Godfathered 40 Years Ago.” wsj.com. Dow Jones & Company Inc, 13
Aug. 2009. Web. 20 Feb. 2012.
Mannino, Mary Ann. Rev. of The Godfather and American Culture: How the Corleones Became
“Our Gang”, by Chris Messenger. MELUS. 28.3 (2003): 218-221. JSTOR. Web. 7 Mar. 2012.
Poon, Phoebe. “The Corleone Chronicles: Revisiting The Godfather Films as Trilogy.” Journal
of Popular Film & Television 33.4 (2006): 187-195.Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 Feb. 2012.
Pozzetta, George. “Italian Americans.” Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America. Ed. Jeffrey
Lehman. 2000. Print.
“The Godfather and the Mafia in Popular Culture.” history.com. A&E Television Networks,
LLC, n.d. Web. 7 Mar. 2012.
Thill, Scott. “The Godfather.” FindArticles.com. CBS Interactive Business Network Resource
Library, 29 Jan. 2002. Web. 15 Feb. 2012.