115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli: The Godfather as Social Critique in Vietnam-Era America

Paul du Quenoy, American University of Beirut

This paper will explore The Godfather as a meme for understandng creative responses to political, institutional, and social corruption during the era of the Vietnam War.


This paper embraces rather than challenges the cliche that films depicting a historical context tend to reveal far more about the times in which they were made than the times they depict. Although the author acknowledges the importance of the immigrant experience, the development of organized crime in early to mid-twentieth century America, and related issues of transnational identity, the paper readily identifies numerous aspects of the American experience that come under explicit or implicit scrutiny in The Godfather Part I (1972) and Part II (1974).
      Created, adapted, and filmed at the time of the Vietnam Conflict and related political trauma such as the Watergate Affair and the rise of militant anti-government groups, it is difficult to image that The Godfather phenomenon could have escaped reflection on these searing traumas. Indeed, director Francis Ford Coppola's next important project, Apocalypse Now, was a focused and direct critique of Vietnam told through the lens of an adaptation of a much older literary work, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Even though The Godfather depicts the evolution of an Italian-American crime family from the 1920s through 1959, concerns from the very different early 1970s clearly radiate through both of the first two installments.
      The paper will examine several issues discursively, beginning with the social, political, and legal milieu of the world of organized crime. It will first examine the film's powerful moral equivalence of crime families and government institutions. It will examine the corrupt nature of the police and the deployment of state-organized violence against youth as something organized by business. It will present the film's implicit critique of capitalism in its presentation of resource distribution and violence. Uses and abuses of military service will come into play as Michael Corleone's seemingly coincidental status as a World War II hero morphs from a noble depiction of his youthful naive character to a chimera which he cynically uses to conceal his criminal actions as a crime boss. A final consideration in the paper will examine how the films depict the shifting nature of the American family under the pressures of a fundamentally corrupt modernity veering into emergent post-modernity.
        A conclusion will assess how continuing social critique extends into The Godfather, Part III, and into subsequent genre works such as Raging Bull, Casino, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos.

Topic Area: