Ruthless. Cunning. The two patriarchs of the Corleone family represented not only power, but how to keep it by way of the sword. Or should I say bullet. Through the Godfather movies (I and II) we got two very different pictures of how to run a crime family. Vito Corleone was a proverbial “man of the people” while Michael was a man of business, wishing to consolidate as much fortune and territory as possible. Vito was a man who carried tradition with him, while Michael was a man who embraced the American dream of prosperity.
Vito Corleone was a child who came from humble means. Both his father and brother were killed in Sicily by a mafia boss, after which he fled to America. One of Part II’s most iconic scenes shows a young Vito landing at Ellis Island, on a boat filled with other immigrants who are coming to New York in pursuit of a better future. Compare that with Michael, who due to his family fortune and prestige, grew up in wealth and was always surrounded by it. Vito, on the other hand, was a working class man, living in crowded city tenements, earning a small, but sufficient living to support his family.
Michael’s first view of the mafia was always one of glory and power. To him as a child, they probably represented the big guys in the room who would always take care of. Vito, on the other hand, was exposed to a much darker side of it. To him these people were ruthless killers: bullies who wrangled cash out of every one they could take from. His goal, in climbing the ladder, was to reform the mafia, and make it one that responded to the needs of the community, rather than exploiting it. Michael’s goal, on the other hand, was to simply expand it as far as he could reach.
Michael, like Vito, did see the truly dark side of the mafia at one point. This came in Part I, after the death of his Sicilian wife, Appolonia, who was killed in a car bomb, originally intended for Michael. When he came back to America we saw a hardened and bitter man who, given the death of his brother, Sonny, the Corleone’s heir apparent, decided to step up and assume the throne of his aging father. Family is what necessitated Michael. In that regard he was giving in to tradition by taking the reins and keeping the Corleone empire alive and thriving. But tradition soon turned into profit, and even family became second to business in Part II when Michael ordered the death of his own brother, Fredo, for giving information that resulted in a botched attempt on his life. Fredo’s betrayal as a brother was secondary only to the fact that he was dangerous to the family business.
The part that most illustrates the comparison of the two Godfathers is in Part II where Michael’s time in Cuba is juxtaposed with flashbacks of a young Vito in New York. Michael, like many businessmen at the time, was coming down to expand his empire into foreign territory. As both history and the movie show, the Americans were later kicked out after the fall of the Batista regime during the Cuban Revolution, and the subsequent rise of dictator Fidel Castro. Reform happens in the form of an uprising, toppling the old structure. In Vito’s life it happens by way of the bullet, when he topples Don Fanucci.
To young Vito the mob represented a force of oppression. But he saw, tactfully, that if someone with the right mind could take a hold of it they could change it into something better. He could erase the brutal patriarchs and replace them with a man of the people. To Vito, the don was meant to be respected. And feared. But above all else, to look after his flock. If you want to be political, you could almost say that a form of Socialism triumphs in both situations: Michael’s expulsion from Cuba, and young Vito’s rise to power. To Michael, the don was simply meant to be feared. And above all else, to be paid. Vito negotiated with his people. He was the father-figure, or literal “Godfather” in his community, doing favors for people who needed help and couldn’t help themselves. Michael, on the other hand, did not negotiate. He simply told you what he wanted and what he was going to take.