Marlon Brando Month #1: The Godfather, Apocalypse Now

The Godfather

The 1972 mafia classic, The Godfather, follows rise and fall of the fictional Corleone crime family as it navigates the treacherous waters of a brewing gang war. Based on Mario Puzo’s award winning novel, the movie focuses primarily on the relationship between the aging head of the Corleone family, Don Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brandon), and his black sheep son Michael (played by Al Pacino), who is reluctantly pulled into the world of organized crime. The main cast is rounded out by James Caan, who plays Michael’s hot headed older brother Sonny, and Robert Duvall, who plays Don Vito’s adopted son/Corleone crime family consigliere. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola (who would again work with Marlon Brando on the 1979 film Apocalypse now), The Godfather is an inarguable classic. Easily Brando’s best film since On the Waterfront. While The Godfather could easily be reduced to a collection of classic scenes (Vito’s dispensing boons on the day of his daughter’s wedding, Michael’s trip to men’s room to retrieve the hidden revolver, Jack Woltz waking up to find his beloved thoroughbred’s head in his bed), what is perhaps most striking about The Godfather on repeat viewing is how small and human it’s story actually is. Set against the such an epic, near Shakespearean backdrop, it’s sometimes easy to forget that The Godfather is really telling the story of a father who wants a better life for at least one of his sons, and a son unable to escape the gravitational pull of family’s sins. It’s a story as old as human history, and one that has lost none of it’s power it the telling.

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now is Francis Ford Coppola’s famously cursed attempt to retell Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness through the lens of America’s involvement in Vietnam. The movie follows Martin Sheen’s Cpt. Willard as he sails up river into Cambodia in an almost certainly suicidal attempt to capture or kill the a rogue special operations officer, Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. Brilliant supporting performances are put in by Robert “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” Duvall, an incredibly heroin riddled Dennis Hopper, and a 15 year old Laurence Fishburne (who by the end of filming would also be incredibly heroin riddled, courtesy of Dennis Hopper). As I mentioned earlier, the production was curse. Problems ranged from the mundane (Brando showing up morbidly obese to play a special forces commando), to the serious (Martin Sheen suffering a heart attack during shooting deep in the jungle), to the absurd (the Philippine Army taking back the helicopters they had loaned the production to fight actual rebels). All that said, Apocalypse Now is a perfect film. The slow unraveling of Cpt. Willards crew as they creep upriver is so intensely wrought as to make the viewer question their own sanity, and the constant indignities, absurdities, and horrors, perfectly capture the almost parallel universe that is war. Though films ending had to be changed considerably in light of Brando’s weight, his performance as the mad god-king of the Mekong Delta is nothing short of extraordinary. In Kurtz, Brando rises above simply being a man, becoming instead a totemic symbol of humanity’s capacity for madness and destruction. The horror, indeed.

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