Film discussion

The Godfather Part II: Remembering the Age of the 3-Hour Epic

With The Godfather back in cinemas recently, we examine Francis Ford Coppola's follow-up...

The first Godfather movie wasn’t even released when Paramount had already beginning thinking of a possible sequel.

When that first movie *did* open and started breaking all-time box-office records, a sequel was an immediate go. Fortunately for everybody, ideas for a script had already been percolating in the mind of writer/director Francis Ford Coppola. Inspired by the history of the warring factions within the small town of Sicily, Italy while he was on-location filming the Michael Corleone in exile scenes for the first Godfather, the director started imagining what telling the story of a younger Vito Corleone would entail. He kept notes of his ideas and then returned to America to oversee the completion of the first film.

A year later, in July of 1972, four months after The Godfather had earned nearly $100 million, Paramount officially announced a sequel. The Godfather Part II would open on December 20, 1974. This gave Coppola and his co-writer, Mario Puzo two and a half years to write, shoot and edit the picture. The first thing Coppola did was immediately return to the ideas he formed in Sicily the previous year. This second movie would indeed feature a significant amount of screen/story-time to the rise of young Vito Corleone, played by an up-and-coming Italian actor named Robert De Niro.

These scenes of young Vito would be interwoven into the other main story, which according to Puzo, were to be about the fall and ultimate death of Michael Corleone (once again played by Al Pacino). While Coppola worked on outlining the young Vito storylines, Puzo was fashioning his story on the fading power of Vito’s son, Michael. Both stories would intersect in the final film which yes, remarkably, did open on December 20th, 1974 despite having been filmed in three different countries, featuring a cast of 100 speaking parts, with stunning plot surprises that required attentiveness from the audience and which ran at 201 minutes in length. Imagine any director pulling *that* off today. It’s rare.

The Godfather Part II was made at a time when a director was allowed to tell the story they wanted to tell it, in the time they wished to take to tell it. During the 1960’s, the three hour film was mostly relegated to large, grand, visionary movies featuring large vistas and environments which crossed the globe – namely the movies of David Lean such as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. Oddly enough, the very first director to release a three hour epic during the 60’s was like Coppola, a fellow Italian – Federico Fellini, who released the 175 minute La Dolce Vita in February of that year.

READ MORE: The Godfather: Revenge as an Unseen Dish Served Cold

A few years later, another Italian would make two films that didn’t quite reach three hours – but at 165 minutes each, they came close. He was Sergio Leone and those films were The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West.

With The Godfather running at 172 minutes and Part II running at 201 minutes, this amounted to a staggering 381 minutes which told the story of two generations of the same family over the course of nearly 60 years (the first scene of Part II takes place in 1901 and ends in 1959). By integrating the two stories, Coppola has created one of the most daring and ambitious movies about America ever made. And to think, George Lucas actually once told Coppola to dump one of the stories early on. It’s a very good thing Coppola didn’t listen to his young friend.

There were actually several scenes shot but left out of the movie. Some of which were: of  young Vito witnessing punks slash the throat of the town heavy, Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin), Vito taking his revenge against Don Ciccio in Sicily when he’s grown, Vito meeting young Tessio, Michael enacting his revenge against his old Sicilian bodyguard Fabrizio (Angelo Infanti) and more. Between the two inter-cutting stories of Young Vito, growing into the role of kind-but-murderous-when-the-situation-calls-for-it Don, to Michael’s senses growing less sharper as paranoia and the constant lying to himself over who he truly is, erodes his soul, there was more than enough story for audiences to attempt to follow.

Much like the first Godfather, there are numerous double crosses throughout; Frank Pantangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) of New York, one of the capos who reports to Michael, wants rivals The Rosato brothers dead but Micheal fears bad business if that were to happen. After a failed attempt by the Rosato’s to kill Michael and Frank (in corroboration with Hymen Roth in Miami), Frank decides to turn states witness again Michael during a series of U.S. senate hearings investigating organized crime activities.

Michael spends much of the movie berating himself for not seeing any of this coming. This causes unbearable strain on his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) and ultimately she betrays him also by informing him she terminated her recent pregnancy. Michael blocks her from his life. Then there’s brother Fredo’s betrayal who has been secretly working with Hymen Roth (Lee Strasberg) in Miami to eventually oust Michael from his position of power. Upon learning this, Michael shuts him out of his life as well and later, Fredo will pay the ultimate price for his betrayal.

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Pt II (1974)

Michael hasn’t lost all his instincts however. When trying to leverage a gambling and liquor license from Nevada senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin), the senator insults Michael’s Italian heritage leaving a very bad taste in his mouth. Later, Michael has the senator set-up by placing him in a situation involving a dead prostitute. Michael sends his consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) to reassure the senator he will be fine – as long as the senator understands his role going forward which is to bend to Michael’s wants and demands – with absolutely no questions asked.

Sharp instincts are the main trait both Corleone men possess above all else and also it was what Coppola relied on while making this film which he only had three months to write, nine months to film and five months to edit. If it failed, he would solely carry the blame. Of course it didn’t and The Godfather Part II is not only the greatest sequel ever made, it is routinely considered one of the ten best movies of all time by just about every major movie publication.

Because of The Godfather Part II, Coppola was able to go on to direct Apocalypse Now which went on to become the longest and most hellish movie shoot in film history. That movie ran at 152 minutes but the 2001 Redux cut ran much longer at 202 minutes.

After resisting the urge to make a third Godfather movie for many, many years, in January 1990, Coppola begin filming The Godfather Part III. In between those years there was Barry Lyndon (187 minutes), The Deer Hunter (183 minutes), Kagemusha (180 minutes), Reds (195 minutes), Ghandi (191 minutes), Scarface (170 minutes), The Right Stuff (193 minutes), Fanny and Alexander (188 minutes), Once Upon a Time In America (226 minutes) and in 1989, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue ran for a pulverizing 572 minutes!

Roger Ebert once said, “no good movie is too long and no bad movie is too short.”  In the case of The Godfather Part II, there is no such thing as too much of a good thing. While the initial cut ran at around 5-and-a-half hours, at just under three-and-a-half it feels perfect even though it took a tremendous toll on Coppola who was gearing up to produce Apocalypse Now for his young protege, George Lucas. That is, until Coppola decided to direct Apocalypse Now himself while Lucas went on to… another project.

Speaking of long, fans would have to wait a very, very long time for The Godfather Part III. Of course, that’s a whole other discussion.

The Godfather is now on release in selected UK cinemas. Make us an offer we can’t refuse and tell us if you’re a fan!

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