The Godfather Is Really the Story of American Capitalism

There have always been complaints about The Godfather movies glorifying crime violence. Yet the story of the Corleone Family is the story of American capitalism in the 20th century.

Fredo and Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II
Photo: Paramount Pictures

The Godfather, which just turned 50 last week, took out all the competition. Budgeted at $6 million, it earned $287 million in theaters. Its worldwide box office was 38.4 times its production costs. It was the first film in history to take in a million bucks a day. Completed ahead of schedule, director Francis Ford Coppola’s family film reflected his Sicilian roots and those of Mario Puzo, the author of the novel. But it wasn’t personal for them, just business.

Prior to 1972, the gangster movie genre traditionally presented a disillusioned underclass in morality plays which sent the same message: “Crime doesn’t pay.” The Godfather says it does. The Corleone Family at the center of the film and novel turn a profit. Puzo’s book charts the rise and fall of the “Mafia,” a word never spoken in the movie, from the vantage point of the most upwardly mobile of New York’s Five Families. It is an immigrant story showing how an insular community helps and hinders itself in the cutthroat world of American assimilation, power, and finance. The film transforms bullets into currency. Coppola was making a larger point about systemic corruption, but critics said he was making excuses for organized crime.

Coppola was accused of glorifying criminal violence, but rightly pointed out that anti-war films similarly cannot be made without portraying bloodshed. The history of crime is the history of society. Warfare and power struggles among criminals run parallel to civil relationships in legitimate society. As becomes apparent in The Godfather Trilogy, which you can now see in 4K Ultra HD, this theme runs through the family’s saga, up to their dealing with the Vatican Church in The Godfather, Part III. Relationships among criminals are the same as political, corporate, institutional, or international. Some leaders are open to negotiation, others administer force.

The Godfather doesn’t romanticize or whitewash organized crime, but shows how it reflects transitional Western society. The film’s crimes are no different than the high crimes and major misdemeanors of American capitalism. Business conquests are littered with collateral damage, from the 1928 “Banana Massacre” perpetuated by the United Fruit Company in Colombia, through union busting, to the Big Three automakers conspiring to hide pollution reports from regulators or the public. Not every business rivalry can be won on a race track, like Ferrari vs Lamborghini. Oil spill cleanups are not covered under manifest destiny.

Ad – content continues below

Coppola saw The Godfather as a metaphor for America, and the Corleone empire as an allegory for corporate malfeasance. “Behind every great fortune there is a crime,” French novelist Honore de Balzac writes in Le Pere Goriot, and America’s birth was a land-grab. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby gained entrance into the highest of societies by selling illegal alcohol and a bit of his soul. Prohibition era bootlegger Joseph P. Kennedy’s son became president of the United States. Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) arrived on Ellis Island as a penniless refugee and built an economic dynasty which extended beyond capital.

“Don Corleone had all the judges and the politicians in New York and he must share them,” Don Emilio Barzini (Richard Conte) says in the film. This is a testament to the glass ceilings the title character has breached, and an appreciation for its cost and value. “After all, we are not Communists.”

Produced during the changing social climate of the Vietnam War era, Coppola’s The Godfather saw mob rule as unrestrained Capitalism as immigrants forged their own inroads to the American Dream.

America the Profitable

“I believe in America,” Amerigo Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) declares as the opening line in The Godfather. “America has made my fortune.” This establishes the United States as a capitalist enterprise. The immigrant funeral director tries to buy the services of a powerful man on the day he can refuse no favor: his daughter’s wedding. Bonasera is not a friend of the father of the bride. He’s never invited Vito to his house. He asks him to commit murder for money, an insult to his host and the tradition he is usurping. Bonasera turned his back on his culture, heritage, and his people. He plays by the rules, but puts on airs he hasn’t earned.

“The judge has ruled. America has ruled,” Vito says in the book, and then presents a very American solution. He treats the insult the same way a bank grants a loan. Corleone will not kill for the funeral director, but he will deliver justice. He doesn’t charge, but tells Bonasera he may be called upon for a favor in the future. Later in the film and book, Corleone will take a meeting with Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), a startup looking for an investor. He requests $1 million with a guaranteed return of up to $5 million. This is a common financial transaction. It doesn’t work out in Sollozzo’s favor in the film, but many corporations have to cut their losses.

Power Structures and Contingency Planning

The Corleones of the page and screen are successful olive-oil importers with diversified interests. Coppola and Puzo’s corporate family write off bribery on expense reports, claim extortion as a deduction, and closed-casket funerals as charitable donations. Casinos and narcotics are allegories for the market system. Family loyalty is a stock option, omerta is the same as protecting the secret sauce recipe for a Big Mac or Krabby Patty, and vengeance has to go before committee.

Ad – content continues below

The Five Families is a business institution which determines specific geographic territories. Like any board of commerce, they mediate disputes and enforce regulatory control. The Corleone Family operate in New York City, controlling politicians, press, and police, as well as their day-to-day business interests.

Vito Corleone is the boss, chief executive of the company, and sits on the governing board. Sonny Corleone (James Caan), the underboss, is chief financial officer. Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), the consigliere who knows “a lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns,” is chief operating officer. Fredo (John Cazale) appears to be head of human relations. Over the course of the film, the family explores operational diversification and expansion, which leads to rapid succession planning. As incoming boss, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) disrupts the competition while transitioning the operations into a global organization.

Leadership Qualities

“My father is no different than any other powerful man, any man who’s responsible for other people, like a senator or a president,” Michael explains to his girlfriend Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), a WASP from New Hampshire who clings to traditional American values. “Do you know how naive you sound,” she questions. “Senators and presidents don’t have men killed.” It is a punchline Michael can only roll his eyes at.

Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince is one of the most cited books in any mafia father’s education. It is mentioned in Puzo’s novel and in Joseph Bonanno’s autobiography, A Man of Honor. It also sits on the shelves of many successful businessmen, alongside Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Art of War by Sun Tzu. A Prince is not only above the law but the source of law, structuring political and social order. He doesn’t accept the rules which condemn him to a life he does not fit. Vito considers himself the equal of presidents and ministers. He intends to enter society with power because society doesn’t protect the powerless.

Machiavelli writes that a leader must know how to imitate both the lion and the fox, to use force and cunning. Corleone can be loosely translated as “lionheart,” and Sonny represents the king of the jungle. Hagen is the fox. Michael combines cunning and the violence on his very first job in the family business. He is the civilian Sollozzo won’t suspect, the prodigal son as silent partner. The assassination of the entrepreneurial upstart and NYPD Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) destroys a monopoly.

Beating the Competition

The Corleones are skilled media players. During the reprisal against Sollozzo, Michael points out there are newspaper reporters on the family pad. They would love a story about a crooked cop caught up with drug dealers who got what was coming to him. It sets up an alibi, poisons public perception, and protects the family brand. When Hagen forces the Hollywood studio head to cast Johnny Fontane in a film, it is also with an eye to the future of the Corleone Family legacy. The singer’s high profile is paramount to the enterprise expanding west.

Ad – content continues below

Capitalism is an uphill race, and winning depends on other marketers to fail. Successful ventures stay on top of the competition, and that is often done by damaging the other’s brand. McDonald’s sued Burger King over false advertising, while Wendy’s found the beef. Alexander Graham Bell claimed the invention of the telephone just because his public relations office was faster than Antonio Meucci’s international patents. Thomas Edison electrocuted an elephant to show up his company’s rival Westinghouse. In Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, Pan Am wreaks legal and illegal havoc on Howard Hughes’ air travel system to maintain aerial superiority.

When Hagen endorses the deal with Sollozzo, he cites superpower strategies. “It’s just like countries,” he says in the book. “If they arm, we have to arm. If they become stronger economically, they become a threat to us.” When Vito is gunned down by the Tattaglias, Hagen sees it through the eyes of an international relations realist. “If your father dies,” he advises Sonny, “you’ll take the deal.”

Michael decimates the competition before expanding west, settling all family business in a hostile takeover. He also cleans house in a major corporate downsizing which includes his own brother-in-law. Salvatore Tessio (Abe Vigoda), who was with the family from its founding, is given final severance. Hagen is demoted.

Blood is a big expense, even on the smallest scales. In spite of what Hollywood would have you believe, loan sharks do not want to kill or maim their clients. Just like any other lending officer, they want to get paid back with a little extra for their trouble. If they can turn that into a regular revenue stream, the better. Sending a collection agent to enforce payment is both an expense and a red flag that the borrower may bounce on payment. A lender does not want to snap a thumb on potential earnings. “Busting a company out,” as we see in Goodfellas, is good for quick cash infusions, but not as a sustainable business model.

Meyer Lansky, who was known as “the mob’s accountant,” bragged that organized crime “was bigger than U.S. Steel.” Breaking Bad’s Walter White says his business brings in as much money as a NASDAQ company. The Godfather is set in the mid-1940s, but even as the film celebrates a half-century, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” is still the bleeding heart of business ethics.

The Godfather Trilogy 4K Ultra HD edition is available now.

Ad – content continues below