The best mob stories ask: “How do I take care of me and mine?” How far are you willing to go to protect your own? In The Godfather and its sequel, The Godfather Part II, the story of the Corleone family becomes the centerpiece of a deep meditation on family and power. Francis Ford Coppola answers: Ultimately, you will lose one in the vain pursuit of the other.
The massive seven-hour cut of Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), now available on HBO’s streaming services, prosecutes those questions during its daunting run-time better than the individual films originally did. While the title sounds like it belongs to an Internet parody, it is an academically apt description. The Godfather Epic—when I learned of it, I knew there was only one thing I could do: See if this edit in any way improves what I consider to be the best film essay ever made on the struggle of an immigrant family to integrate into the U.S.
So I begin: The Godfather Epic is a straightforward, chronological re-edit of the two films, incorporating some footage once left on the cutting room floor. Godfather buffs (which is to say, seemingly every straight, American male over 30) will know this means that the film opens on the flashbacks from The Godfather Part II set in turn-of-the-century Sicily and New York City during young Vito Andolini Corleone’s rise to power, continuing through the ’40s of The Godfather and ending in the late ’50s “present day,” back with The Godfather Part II.
The film holds up surprisingly well considering its gargantuan minute-count. Edits aren’t totally seamless, but they are painless. The greater story is remarkably consistent, and its broad themes carry through expertly.
But really, the only way to dissect the differences and discover if such an edit is a worthy experiment with such near-legendary films is to join me, minute by minute, through seven hours of Italian tragedy.
Young Vito (played as a child by Oreste Baldini, an adult by Robert De Niro, and in middle age by Marlon Brando) has no control over his destiny. After his father and brother and mother are murdered in Sicily, he’s herded through Ellis Island, a number pinned on his shirt as he stares out the window at the Statue of Liberty. (The number, perhaps symbolic of how lucky he is to be in even this sad situation rather than dead, is 7.) This low point at the beginning of Vito’s journey is one of only maybe two scenes in the entire movie in which we see the character completely alone, sharing the screen with no one.
I have self-centered reasons for being enamored with this part. My mother and her parents were among some 10,000 Cuban refugees who immigrated to the United States in the wake of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. My mother tells me of waiting to get on a boat along with thousands of other desperate refugees, of waiting in the same kind of purgatory in which young Vito pauses until Christian missionaries acquainted with my grandfather “claimed” them and allowed them entry into the country.
Upon boarding, there was a problem: My grandmother wasn’t listed. It is impossible for me to imagine my Chinese grandfather and my Cuban grandmother (both dead now) with my grade-school-aged mother and aunt in tow, arguing with one another over whether my grandmother should send everyone ahead and try to use her Spanish heritage to escape later. It was only the discovery that she was listed under her maiden name that ensured the family made the voyage together.
In discussing the film, a friend mentioned that a relation’s grandparent passed through Ellis Island and lost contact with a brother. To this day, he says, the family has no idea what happened to that brother, just as I’ve grown up with no contact with vast stretches of my own extended family in China and Cuba. And so, I understand Vito in one crucial way: He knows that terrible outside forces are at work, forces that do not care what happens to families like his.
We move on: Seventeen years after Vito (now portrayed by DeNiro) sits in that lonely little room, that terrible outside force has become the strutting small-time mobster Don Fanucci (Gaston Moschin), who steals Vito’s job and bullies his neighbors.
“Why does he bother other Italians?” Vito asks at one point.
From the perspective of the film, this is the real sin Fanucci commits, far more egregious than his vulgar arrogance. You’ll notice that later, when Vito climbs to the proverbial top, he curries favor among struggling Italian families instead of shaking them down for protection.
For his lack of solidarity, Fanucci gets got. Vito stalks him over the rooftops of New York City and then ambushes him in a darkened stairwell. Cut together this way, the first hour of The Godfather Epic is a hard treatise on the loyalty and tribalism of criminality in those bygone days, set in the breathtakingly well-shot streets of crowded 1917 New York and then transitioning coherently to the well-oiled machine of the Corleone’s syndicate in the ’40s.
The first hour is also the groundwork for the family saga at the center of the film, and a thesis on why Vito must build a fortress to shield his family from the callous world. Having murdered the shit out of Fanucci, Vito sits on the stoop of his house, cradling his infant son Michael as a neighbor serenades them with the “Godfather Waltz,” the leitmotif that will play whenever the Corleone family’s fortunes change for good or ill.
During this hour, Sicilian gangsters have slaughtered Vito’s family before uninterested civil servants on Ellis Island casually deprived him of his name. They (all forces, taken as one oppressive power) put him in a lonely little room, with only his own singing for company. Despite all of that, he makes a new family for himself, and destroys each threat to it.
These are the awful things we are forced to do, and this is whom we do them for.
The recut fades in on Bonasera the undertaker’s face with zero fanfare, and we’ve run into the start of the original Godfather footage. It’s only a little bit jarring that no titles accompany this shift, as they do during the other parts of the film.
What struck me as the ’40s story began is how much more effectively this Epic version convinces us that Don Vito is the Platonic ideal of the mob boss. Placed centrally in this cut, Marlon Brando’s performance as the middle-aged Don Vito anchors the whole experience. Those who came before him and Michael’s authoritarian reign after him both fail to live up to his model for different reasons. Michael (Al Pacino, in the role that made him famous) doesn’t have the thuggish contempt for the little guy of the Sicilian and New York mobsters that plague young Vito, but like them, he has no patience for any concerns but his own.
Having crushed those other mobsters, Vito’s way with the common folk shows he’s a family leader who is smarter, smoother, more cautious and—if this baller wedding tells us anything—far more successful.
The additional footage in The Godfather Epic is largely incidental, giving minor characters another line here or there. One such small scene features Corleone lieutenant Clemenza (Richard Castellano) driving around before the murder that prompts his classic “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli,” line. He sits at a restaurant, eating as the camera looks in at him through the window, a reflection of a statue of the Virgin juxtaposed with his quiet meal. Like other such additions, it’s a shot that feels meaningful but proves meaningless in such a long film.
One major epiphany I get from this mega-cut is a holistic feeling when Michael returns to Sicily. Vito’s earlier scenes, fleeing from this land, give a background to Michael’s scenes which, in the context of it being the first movie, doesn’t truly translate. The parallels between the stories of Vito and Michael stand out so much more: Though Michael already has blood on his hands by this point in the story, Sicily is the same land of tragedy for him that it was for his father. Far from America, Michael suffers the loss of a loved one that makes all of this, the idea of making the family business successful in order to protect his own, personal. Like his father, he will violently repay that loss.
As Don Vito tells Michael his regrets, I have another epiphany: Don Vito is the protagonist in a classical tragedy.
In this cut, he rises from nothing, becomes the biggest and baddest, and then is brought low by things outside his control: the changing times, the squabbling sons who fail to live up to him and ultimately his failure to shield the prodigal son, Michael, from the underworld. His laments to Michael now come at the middle of the seven-hour experience, after we’ve witnessed Vito’s hardscrabble struggle from the beginning.
Vito dies while playing with his grandson. Not understanding what’s happened, the boy runs away, and the camera lingers for just a while on the body, lying in the garden. Vito’s alone again.
The door closes on Diane Keaton’s face, signalling the end of the original Godfather footage. Assisted by some titles, we move on to the “present day” footage of The Godfather Part II. It’s at this stage that I finally begin to feel a little exhaustion. We somehow still have two and a half damn hours left.
The Epic doesn’t really lessen this feeling of exhaustion. The whole work begins to suffer a bit at this stage. Michael’s brother Fredo (John Cazale) has become a major player despite having only a few lines up to this point; the entire crux of the plot revolves around feints and counter-feints that have nothing to do with anything from the first five hours; and any callbacks to the earlier stuff seem tacked on.
An example of the bloat: At this point Fabrizio (the traitorous Sicilian who car-bombed Michael’s first wife) is murdered, but it feels completely incidental. If there’s a theme here, I don’t see it.
When Michael asks his mother if a man can lose his family in the struggle to protect it, it’s a question we’ve already answered.
Thematically weighty moments like these become fewer and farther between during the ’50s story. Scenes of Michael standing before a Senate committee after we’ve heard his father’s lament that Michael never became “the one who holds the strings” deepen the narrative, as does hearing one character’s fiery soliloquy on a murder from the first film. Unfortunately, they’re buried under a whole lot of slow plot.
Michael’s wife Kay (Diane Keaton, unrecognizable in her youth and tragically underused in the past six hours) gets her one really powerful scene as she reveals to her husband that she had an abortion because she can’t bear the thought of raising another child in the mob. He wouldn’t understand, she rants, because of “this Sicilian thing that’s been going on for 2,000 years!” It’s an unintentional laugh line in this cut: Surely, I thought, she is referring to this film.
As the film’s penultimate scene flashes back to 1941 and the fight that results from Michael revealing his enlistment in the Marines to his family, I’m not sure if it’s meant to be the beginning of his personal fall or one last reminder that he’s always viewed himself as apart, as better. True tragedy comes from a fatal, internal flaw, and something about this scene is meant to suggest his.
His family leaves him in the room alone. The only other times that both Michael and Vito are alone onscreen occur in the tense moments before they kill—always in explicit defense of the family.
The last scene flashes forward to Michael on a park bench by himself before the fade to black—years later, after he’s driven away his wife and his sister and seen four people in the previous scene killed, three of them by his own order. The lonely horn section of the waltz motif plays us out.
These are the awful things we are forced to do, and this is whom we do them for. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves.
If you’ve got an HBO Go password, a whole day to kill, and want to see the definitive immigrant story/definitive American tragedy, settle in and see The Godfather Epic. Just be warned that, like Michael, you may come to the end of it alone.