Chronology is overrated.
The Godfather Saga is an official TV special produced by Francis Ford Coppola and edited by Barry Malkin. It smashes together scenes from The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II, putting the story of the Corleone family into chronological order for one seven-hour + change movie. It also neuters a lot of the violence, sex, and language to suit a “family-friendly” TV feature.
And it’s awful; irredeemably awful. It’s the worst thing to ever happen to The Godfather as a piece of high operatic art. When I first saw the Saga as a kid, all I could think was, “look how they massacred my movie!” I couldn’t have told you why, but I believe I can now.
Let’s put aside the Saga’s grave sin of editing out the R-rated stuff. Pointing out that watering down violence in a series of movies all about the humanity of a family steeped in violence seems like a cheap shot. Instead, I’ll just say this: watering down the violence muddies The Godfather’s use of juxtaposition.
Indeed, the short secret to the mastery of The Godfather lies in how it juxtaposes all things. Everything is depicted in contrast to something else. Open the film in a dark room with a stranger detailing a violent accosting of his daughter and asking for murderous vengeance; next scene is a bright, happy wedding full of dancing, music, and a cake the size of a fountain. Show off a Hollywood bigshot’s beautiful estate and present a character who lives on appearances, followed by that guy waking up to the ugliest, bloodiest mess in then-cinematic history (the horse’s head). Name Michael godfather of his newborn nephew in a richly religious Catholic christening, with his renouncing of Satan intercut with five different violent murders all ordered by him.
In Part II, juxtaposition is even more important. Young Vito is trapped in his own cycle of violence, but his grace and charm animate his movement in full contrast with Michael. Nearly everything Young Vito does has no immediate benefit to himself personally. He executes Don Fanucci, not just to save his cash but in revenge for his victims. He kills Don Ciccio to avenge the murders of his family, and commands a shifty landlord’s obedience on behalf of a helpless widow.
Michael, on the other hand, acts like he does everything to protect his family, but he shows them false love while he greedily schemes against others. His cold-blooded demeanor is a far cry from his father’s. As a result, his story ends where it began – Michael sitting all alone – and the contrast could not be more important to understanding just how far he’s fallen by his own hand.
Jumping between past and present made for an unwieldly structure that Part II can’t ever fully overcome, but in the grand scheme it served two functions. It made Michael’s story all the more tragic in comparison to his father, and it indicts the American dream as a dehumanizing lie built and attained upon blood and fear. The Godfather as a story cannot be understood or appreciated as a one-dimensional chronology of a crime family. Yet this is exactly how the Saga presents it.
Even worse, by montaging events in chronological order, the Saga shoehorns the original masterpiece within its bifurcated Part II. In doing so, it unwittingly treats said original masterpiece like an inconvenience instead of a core emotional novel. In other words, The Godfather should give context to its sequel/prequel, not the other way around.
“Godfather” connotes wise and benevolent guardianship, but the Five Families are insular groups of dignified, sophisticated cartel lords who run their empires like barons. So if The Godfather has a thesis, it’s that Michael’s destiny to succeed his father is the tragic realization from which he tries to run away. From joining the Marines to seeking out the affection of a non-Italian (“That’s my family, Kay; it’s not me”), to his time with Apollonia, to “I never wanted this for you,” both Michael and Vito spend most of the movie trying to dodge the inevitable. Michael’s business acumen makes him more like his father than anyone else, which is why Vito wants him elsewhere, and those aforementioned scenes all attempt to keep hope alive that Michael will indeed get away. But he won’t because he can’t, and what follows his coronation is death and treachery.
Part II, then, if shown before the original, saps that core story of all its emotional weight. If you see Young Vito’s journey through violence first, the story can’t toy with your expectations about Michael or make them resonate. If you see the life of Young Vito without first understanding the man he would be later, his scenes make no sense. Worse, they cannot be juxtaposed with the story of Michael’s fall from grace and departure from the family values that initially called to him in the first place.
The Godfather and Part II are not just movies, but operas. Loud, grand, and boisterous as they are quiet and suspenseful; understanding their impact is not unlike understanding the impact of Star Wars. I’m ambivalent as to whether or not they’re the two greatest films in history, but however they should be presented to those poor cinematic virgins of today, it should not be with a fan-fiction-like edit of the kind that YouTube has in spades for so many other properties.
On this forty-year anniversary of when The Godfather Saga first aired, it is more important now than ever to remember and respect a story’s integrity over the convenience of its presentation. So if you happen to catch it on AMC or HBO, change the channel and let it sleep with the fishes.
 The other secret is Nino Rota’s music.