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Chapter 37: The Godfather

The Godfather is one of the great movies of the last several years, and its enormous popularity is eminently well deserved. In the first place, it is a decidedly Old Culture movie, or “movie-movie”; it is gloriously arrière-garde, and there is not a trace of the avant-garde gimmicks and camera trickery that have helped to ruin so many films in recent years. It is a picture with heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys; there is not a trace of the recently fashionable concern with the “alienation” of shnooks and cretins searching endlessly for a purpose in life. The pace is terrific, the suspense and plot and direction and acting all excellent. Many of the lines are memorable, and “we’re going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” has already burned its way indelibly into American culture.

The key to the movie is the first scene, when an elderly undertaker, having gone to the police and to the courts for justice for his raped and beaten daughter, and failed abysmally to get it, at last turns to the Corleone Family for that precious quality, justice. Brando, as Don Vito Corleone, the “Godfather,” berates the undertaker: “Why did you go to the courts for justice? Why didn’t you come to me?” And it is further made gloriously evident that the Corleone Family’s concept of justice is advanced indeed. When the undertaker asks Don Corleone to kill the assaulters of his daughter, Don Vito is shocked: “But that is not justice. They did not murder your daughter.” With a keen sense of the concept of proportionate justice, of punishment fitting the crime, Don Vito agrees to make the rapists “suffer” as the daughter had suffered.

The central theme of the plot is the growth of son Michael Corleone; originally a college lad grown apart from the old Sicilian Family ways, Michael takes his stand with the family when his father is nearly murdered by other, aggressor Families, and toughens into the role of successor to Don Vito. (Actually, the word “godfather” is a weak translation of the Italian word compare, which also has connotations of: friend, best man, patron.)

A crucial political statement in the picture comes when Michael is trying to explain to his disapproving WASP girlfriend what the Family is all about: essentially their entrepreneurship of illegal goods and services, their necessity to enforce their own contracts, and (regrettably for the libertarian) their penchant for monopoly in which they are a pale reflection of “respectable” and “legitimate” government. Michael tells his girl that his father is a man of power and influence, and hence the methods he employs, “like the President of the United States.” The girl replies: “But the President doesn’t order anyone killed,” to which Michael rebuts: “Now you’re being naïve”— a masterpiece of political understatement.

But above all, a movie-movie in the grand tradition: a rugged, magnificent epic.

[Reprinted from Libertarian Forum 4, no. 6–7 (1972).]