Among the myriad of reasons for why books are almost unfailingly better than their cinematic counterparts, the most important is that they are capable of the kind of depth and detail and backstory that screenwriters do not even dare to dream of. In order to achieve the same depth, a movie would have to be so long that even the most devoted moviegoer would flag in their enthusiasm. In the classic movie The Godfather, which I had seen twice prior to reading the book, I remember being both enthralled and repulsed by this glimpse into New York’s underground crime rings of the 1940s. Regardless of the fact that the story itself is fiction, I was floored by the nonchalance of murder and the impunity via political connections enjoyed by the Families. But I was also disdainful that these people should believe that they had the right to be the makers and enforcers of their own laws and moral codes within the larger framework of the United States government. To me it seemed irresponsible, unsympathetic to the consequences sure to ensue. From the movie, I understood that it was greed and a thirst for power that fueled these organizations. But then I read the book and I came to understand not only why these pseudo-governments came into existence but even (although I am not so naive as to think that greed and power did not play their part) why they were justified in doing so. As my eyes raced over the words on pages that dealt with whole layers of backstory that the movie didn’t even touch on, I came to see on a deeper level what it was truly about and what, arguably, the movie missed completely: the reality of immigrant life in America.
Ever since the English and smattering of French and Dutch settlers who first came to North America conveniently “forgot” the fact of their own immigration, American-born citizens have looked down on and otherwise made life hard for immigrants. Whereas today it is the Central and South Americans that suffer this fate, in the early part of the last century, it was the Italian immigrants escaping crushing economic conditions in their home country (especially southern Italy and Sicily) who faced poverty, manipulation, and unfair treatment as their Welcome Wagon to America. It was because of this reality that the underground rule of crime “Families” flourished like dark things do in the damp and untended corners of society. The following is Michael Corleone’s attempt to explain who his father, the Godfather, is:
He doesn’t accept the rules of the society we live in because those rules would have condemned him to a life not suitable to a man like himself, a man of extraordinary force and character. What you have to understand is that he considers himself the equal of all those great men like Presidents and Prime Ministers and Supreme Court Justices and Governors of the States. He refuses to live by rules set up by others, rules which condemn him to a defeated life. But his ultimate aim is to enter that society with a certain power since society doesn’t really protect its members who do not have their own individual power. In the meantime he operates on a code of ethics he considers far superior to the legal structures of society (365).
It is still the same story. Why do we continue to be surprised that people whom we as a nation try to take advantage of eventually organize in order to protect themselves and their interests? These are the same conditions that birth violent gangs formed mostly by underprivileged minorities in urban areas today. Granted, these power structures lack the finesse and coordination of the Godfather and the Corleone Family, but it’s the same principle. How can anyone expect a group of people systematically neglected and pushed to the fringes of society to simply allow this to happen until time or some sense of human compassion causes those in power to see them as equally needful of the same benefits and protection afforded to the native-born, usually white citizenry?
It is this unwillingness to allow xenophobic injustice and prejudice to dictate their lives that makes the Godfather and the other heads of family men to be emulated, in character if not action. I am not condoning murder or coercion as a political or personal weapon, but I can not deny the strength of will and the desire to protect their families and friends that spurred these men from humble beginnings to positions of power.
All of these men were good listeners, patient men. They had one other thing in common. They were those rarities, men who had refused to accept the rule of organized society, men who refused the dominion of other men. There was no force, no mortal man who could bend them to their will unless they wished it. They were men who guarded their free will with wiles and murder. Their wills could be subverted only by death. Or the utmost reasonableness (287).
It is that last line that caught my attention like a fishhook to the mouth. These are not madmen deaf to reason and sentiment. They are ruthless and condemn men to death with the wave of their hand but their violence is not arbitrary, their cruelty not lacking in focus. Our own “legitimate” government openly tortures, murders, and otherwise uses the force of their political weight to achieve its own ends, often in the name of freedom and liberty. The American government, in spite of benevolent and inspiring semantics, has never been especially worried about the lower classes. In action, it has always been the interests of the rich at the expense of those of the poor. Don Corleone is a wealthy man, interested in retaining and growing his wealth, but he is simultaneously a friend to the laborer, the artisan, the helpless and dependent. It is vital, however, to point out that African-Americans and other minorities did not fall under the protection and benevolence of the Families. Today, corporations get to vote as if they were people, money can keep criminals out of jail and put psychopaths and idiots in political power… but does our government listen to the utmost reasonableness? When I think of our current bipartisan government, reasonableness is not a word that comes to mind.
Understand that I am not advocating capital “M” Mob rule. For one, as I pointed out, the Italian families cared little for the fates of other minorities, especially blacks whom they considered little more than animals. Also, despite the Families’ insistence that civilians were not harmed in their wars, that women and children were completely off-limits as targets for blood feuds and vendettas, it would be of the utmost naiveté to believe that there were never innocents caught in the cross-fire. We see this in the book when Michael is in exile in Sicily where the ravages of years of wars between Families has devastated the region. Even Michael’s new young wife, Apollonia, is murdered accidentally in a failed assassination attempt. I am of the belief that violence begets only violence and can never be a long-term solution. I also believe that everyone should be treated as equals, regardless of faith, income, skin color, gender, sex, etcetera ad infinitum, but still I can admit that there are aspects of the Godfather’s rule that seem preferable to how my government runs things. It seems beneficial to have the ruling members of a society remember what it was like to be one of the outcasts, what it felt like to be the “other”. In such cases, it would seem more difficult to forget them later, as legislation seems to do when it tries to penalize abortion with one hand while stripping people of their welfare benefits with the other, or withholding citizenship from those who need it to survive, or sending military instead of university recruiters to high school classes of low-income or minority students.
In all honesty, I would not cast my vote for Don Corleone for president. But the whole idea does provide some food for thought, does it not?