Francis Ford Coppola Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Francis Ford Coppola 1939–

American filmmaker, producer, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Coppola's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 16.

Francis Ford Coppola is both an acclaimed and a controversial director. His adaptation of Mario Puzo's novel, The Godfather (1972), made him a powerful Hollywood force and also a magnet for criticism. In addition to directing, Coppola is a producer and the head of Omni Zoetrope (formerly American Zoetrope), a studio he started in 1969 to help young filmmakers produce their work.

Biographical Information

Trained in film at the University of California at Los Angeles, Coppola worked with Roger Corman as an assistant director and writer. Corman offered him his first opportunity to direct on Dementia 13 (1963). The film was not well received, however, and his next film, You're a Big Boy Now (1966), was overshadowed by Mike Nichols's The Graduate, released at the same time. In retrospect, many critics find You're a Big Boy Now a fresh, zany look at the disillusionment and joys of growing up. In 1968, Coppola directed his first—and perhaps his last—musical. His version of Finian's Rainbow (1968) was released amidst a barrage of negative reviews. All during production, Coppola was plagued by the problems of an inexperienced filmmaker attempting to create a large-scale musical. Warner Brothers, however, dealt the death blow. The studio, sure of the film's success, expanded the 35mm print to 70mm to give it the aura of a grandiose musical. In the process, however, Fred Astaire's feet were cut off the bottom of the screen. When his next film, The Rain People (1969), received a lukewarm critical reception, Coppola's future looked questionable. When first asked to direct the film version of Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather (1972), Coppola turned it down. He only reluctantly agreed the second time because he needed the money. While Part I was in production, Coppola fought for three things: Marlon Brando for the part of Don Corleone, Al Pacino for the part of Michael Corleone, and the adaptation of the film as a period piece rather than setting it in the present. Because of these aspects of the film, among others, Coppola transformed what some considered a strictly sensational novel into an epic of family loyalty within the world of organized crime. The film ended up propelling Coppola to the top of Hollywood's elite directors. Several of Coppola's productions have been plagued with problems and controversy. The filming of Apocalypse Now (1979) became infamous for its difficult production and skyrocketing costs. The collapse of one of its stars, Martin Sheen, made reworking several of the scenes impossible and caused Coppola to add the last-minute voice-over narration. The filming of The Godfather, Part III (1990), also went well over budget due to time restrictions and obligations to deliver to the studio for a Christmas release. The last-minute replacement of the ill Winona Ryder with Coppola's daughter Sophia drew criticism and the usual difficulties on the set due to an inexperienced actress. Coppola has won numerous awards, including the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival for The Conversation in 1974. Director's Guild Awards as best director in 1972 and 1974, and several Academy Awards.

Major Works

Coppola's groundbreaking The Godfather, traces the fortunes and misfortunes of the Corleone family, prominent members of the Italian mafia in New York City. The story's main focus is on Michael Corleone as his American and Italian ideals conflict and he changes from a peripheral figure to the head of the family business. The Godfather, Part II (1974) takes up Michael's story again as he heads the family during its declining years. His story is juxtaposed to flashbacks of his father Vito Corleone, the original don, as he leads the family into its ascendancy. Vito represents the old values of family and loyalty while Michael has taken the family away from these traditional values to pursue a more corporate, capitalistic success. In the end, Michael's attempts are unsuccessful and the family is left in a shambles. The Godfather, Part III goes beyond the world of organized crime and American capitalism to include international finance and intrigue at the Vatican. Michael begins to regret his life and goes looking for redemption through the Catholic Church. Among Coppola's more personal, lower budget films is The Conversation (1974), which traces the mental breakdown of a professional wiretapper who loses his professional detachment and becomes overcome with paranoia. Apocalypse Now uses the novella Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, as the organizing principle through which Coppola looks at the Vietnam War. Captain Willard is sent by the American generals to assassinate the renegade Colonel Kurtz, who has led a group of soldiers into the jungle and begun to wage his own kind of war. The major conflict between the generals and Kurtz is the role of morality in the fighting of a war. Willard represents the mediating principle in the film between these two opposing sides. Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) represents his vision of the vampire myth and is characterized by elaborate, stylized costumes and a beautiful, youthful Hollywood cast.

Critical Reception

Several critics complained that Coppola's The Godfather glorified and romanticized the mob in America and violence in general. Although Coppola tried to address this concern with less violence and a more pessimistic ending in The Godfather, Part II, critics still found his portrayal of Vito Corleone as too sympathetic and idealized. There is much disagreement about which of the Godfather films is superior, some claiming Part I, others Part II and most agreeing that Part III was one part too many. There is general agreement, however, that Coppola forever changed the gangster genre and that his Godfather saga left a permanent mark on the American psyche. Jack Kroll summed up the first two films' success saying, "Godfather I and its sequel were that rarity, a tremendous critical and box-office success that earned its studio, Paramount, a total of $800 million, plus nine Oscars and a permanent place in American culture." Many reviewers complain that Coppola does not live up to his stated message in his films, especially in Apocalypse Now, which some reviewers said left Coppola's view of America's involvement in Vietnam unclear. Leonard Quart and Albert Auster asserted, "Coppola's strength as a director is not psychological revelation or personal intimacy. It's the pictorial and metaphoric, the strong narrative and the ambitious conception which distinguish his work." Some reviewers have concluded that Coppola strives too hard for box-office success and feel it compromises his artistic vision, but Stephen Farber takes a different view. He stated, "… Coppola is the rare movie tycoon who is also a serious artist, and his best work compares with the best being done anywhere in the world."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dementia 13 [director] (screenplay) 1963
Is Paris Burning? [with Gore Vidal, Jean Aurenche, Pierre Bost, and Claude Brulé] (screenplay) 1966
You're a Big Boy Now [adapted from the novel by David Benedictus; also director] (screenplay) 1966
Finian's Rainbow [director] (screenplay) 1968
The Rain People [also director] (screenplay) 1969
Patton [with Edmund H. North] (screenplay) 1970
The Godfather [with Mario Puzo; also director] (screenplay) 1972
The Conversation [also director] (screenplay) 1974
The Godfather, Part II [with Puzo; also director] (screenplay) 1974
The Great Gatsby [adapted from the novel...

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Judith Vogelsang (essay date Spring 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Motifs of Image and Sound in The Godfather," in Journal of Popular Film, Vol. II, No. 2, Spring, 1973, pp. 115-35.

[In the following essay; Vogelsang analyzes the importance of visual and aural clues in foreshadowing the transformation of Michael Corleone's values in The Godfather.]


Out of the darkness, the blacks and whites of Sicilian gangster society (the black screen, the black and white credits, the fade-up from black to the undertaker), we have a three-hour glimpse of the Corleone family, fictional creations, a vision of Italian underworld life in America.

The first line of The...

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Vincent Canby (review date 22 December 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Godfather, Part II: One Godfather Too Many," in New York Times, December 22, 1974, p. D19.

[In the following review, Canby complains that "Much of the time it's next to impossible to figure out who's doing what to whom [in The Godfather, Part II], not, I suspect, because its mode is ambiguity, but because it's been cut and edited in what looks to have been desperation…."]

If Francis Ford Coppola were a less intelligent and less talented filmmaker, one might indulge the failed aspirations of The Godfather, Part II—if not the thick fog of boredom that settles in before the film is even one hour old. Clumsy directors may not be...

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Leonard Quart and Albert Auster (review date 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Godfather, Part II, in Cineaste, Vol. VI, No. 4, 1975, pp. 38-9.

[In the following review, Quart and Auster assert that despite operating within the commercial form in The Godfather, Part II, Coppola has created "an epic about immigrants which begins to take hold of the whole saga of Americanization and the spiritual dissolution that resulted from it."]

The Hollywood epic has usually meant Charlton Heston in beard, toga, or armor, spectacular effects and battle sequences, an inflated budget, and an adulteration of history and myth. In fact, Hollywood has rarely even bothered to vulgarize American history and myth, preferring to mine...

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Carlos Clarens (review date January-February 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Godfather Saga," in Film Comment, Vol. 14, No. 1, January-February, 1978, pp. 21-3.

[In the following review, Clarens asserts that Coppola's The Godfather epic does not translate well to television, and complains that the film's restructuring does not add much to the film, except in its early sequences.]

Long before the success of Roots in January, 1977, Francis Ford Coppola had envisioned combining the two parts of The Godfather into one seven-hour film for theatrical release. Few directors have been that ambitious, and none from Hollywood. Their work is mainly to be seen in art houses and colleges all over the nation: Mark Donskoi,...

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David Thompson (essay date Spring 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Discreet Charm of The Godfather," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 47, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 76-80.

[In the following essay, Thompson asserts, "The Godfather is so weighed down with the wish to be classy, dramatically precise and socially significant, that it is empty of creative passion."]

How does one convey outrage these days without sounding pedantic or shrill? We have bypassed that tone in the effort to elevate films with goodwill. The role of active dislike is nearly in abeyance. At any event, this is a discriminating attack, and I will be as calm as possible with it, even if outrage is upsetting. But to talk about movies is a matter of...

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Anthony Ambrogio (essay date Fall 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Godfather, I and II: Patterns of Corruption," in Film Criticism, Vol. III, No. 1, Fall, 1978, pp. 35-44.

[In the following essay, Ambrogio traces the imperfect repetitions between The Godfather Part I and II and asserts that they demonstrate the breakdown of the Corleone family and its criminal organization.]

NBC's 12-15 November 1977 telecast of Godfather I and II in reedited, almost strictly chronological form, padded by the addition of scenes previously cut, provided some insights into and confirmations of elements in the original films but didn't improve upon the initial structure of the pictures, particularly...

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William M. Hagen (essay date 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Heart of Darkness and the Process of Apocalypse Now," in Conradiana, Vol. XIII, No. 1, 1981, pp. 45-53.

[In the following essay, Hagen analyzes the relationship between Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and concludes, "I tend to see Apocalypse Now as a failed masterpiece, another instance of the fact that the production-editing process cannot bear too much of the conceptual load in a feature film."]

Toward the end of Apocalypse Now we reach that supremely Conradian moment when Willard, the Marlow figure, confronts the object of his journey, Colonel Kurtz. Does he come to rescue Kurtz and,...

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John Hellmann (essay date Fall 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Vietnam and the Hollywood Genre Film: Inversions of American Mythology in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now," in American Quarterly, Vo. 34, No. 4, Fall, 1982, pp. 418-39.

[In the following essay, Hellmann traces how Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter and Coppola's Apocalypse Now use different American genres—the western and the hardboiled detective, respectively—to portray two different interpretations of the Vietnam War.]

Since their respective releases in 1978 and 1979, Michael Cimino's Deer Hunter and Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now have enjoyed remarkable popular and critical success. But their wide...

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William Simon (essay date Spring 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Analysis of the Structure of The Godfather, Part One," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XVI. No. 1, Summer, 1983, pp. 75-90.

[In the following essay, Simon provides a close analysis of the narrative structure of Coppola's The Godfather, Part One.]

This essay attempts to perform several critical tasks. It is primarily an analysis of the narrative structure of The Godfather, Part One, directed in 1972 by Francis Ford Coppola. In these terms, my aim is to explain how meaning is created in that film through an understanding of its narrative structuring and the significance of its cultural codes.

At the same time the...

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Thomas J. Ferraro (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Blood in the Marketplace: The Business of Family in The Godfather Narratives," in The Invention of Ethnicity, edited by Werner Sollors, Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 176-208.

[In the following essay, Ferraro analyzes the relationship between family and business in Puzo's The Godfather, and how Coppola's The Godfather II and Richard Condon's Prizzi's Honor build upon the original Godfather narrative.]

Giorgio introduces me to his friend Piero Paco, hero of the Italo-American breach into American literature. He looks like a massive gangster but turns out to be a plain, nice guy with a lot of folksy...

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David Everett Whillock (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Narrative Structure in Apocalypse Now," in America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, edited by Owen W. Gilman, Jr. and Lorrie Smith, Garland Publishing, 1990, pp. 225-37.

[In the following essay, Whillock explores how Coppola set up oppositions in environment, characters, and story-motifs, and used mediators to bridge the opposites.]

I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

It smells like victory.

Major Kilgore in Apocalypse Now

When Francis Ford Coppola made public his decision to produce and...

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Jack Kroll (review date 24 December 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Corleones Return," in Newsweek, Vol. CXVI, No. 26, December 24, 1990, pp. 58-9, 61.

[In the following review, Kroll describes the problems which plagued Coppola during the filming of The Godfather Part III.]

The pressure is unbelievable," says Francis Ford Coppola. "This is just another movie. It's a Godfather movie. But it's become a big sporting event. It's about Francis—is he going to die or live?" In the last frantic days before the release of The Godfather Part III on Christmas Day, Coppola feels like a bull facing an army of matadors—the public that's been waiting for the next chapter in the Godfather saga for 16 years, since...

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Karen Jaehne (review date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Godfather Part III, in Cineaste, Vol. XVIII, No. 2. 1991, pp. 41-3.

[In the following review, Jaehne lists several of the faults of Coppola's Godfather III and concludes. "Maybe its's time for Coppola to give up sequels and create some original sins."]

A baroque vision of life at the top of the criminal ladder in the rusty hues of blood and dried blood, The Godfather Part III is about the cost of redeeming one's soul, especially when that soul has been so neglected it looks like the dilapidated house at Lake Tahoc where Godfather II stopped and Part III begins. Michael Corleone's life is redeemed, apparently,...

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David Denby (review date 7 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Grandfather," in New York, Vol. 24, No. 1, January 7, 1991, pp. 57, 64-5.

[In the following review, Denby complains, "The Godfather III has its moments, but I think one can state as a principle that a man's desire to withdraw from life cannot serve as the center of an epic drama (not, that is, without Shakespeare's poetry)."]

For much of its two-hour-and-forty-minute length, I waited for The Godfather Part III to explode, and for a long time it only wheezed. The movie certainly isn't boring, but much of it is heavy-spirited and glum, as if the Mafia and the Godfather movies themselves had become unspeakably important facts of American...

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Elaine Showalter (review date 8 January 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Blood Sell," in Times Literary Supplement, January 8, 1993, p. 14.

[In the following review. Showalter discusses the vampire genre and Coppola's version, concluding, "More about coffers than coffins, this Dracula will neither join the canon of vampire classics nor enrich Coppola's artistic reputation."]

"There is not a theatre in Paris without its Vampire!" a French critic exclaimed in 1820; and London and New York might say the same today. From Francis Ford Coppola's new Dracula to John Landis's sexy Innocent Blood, from Nigel Finch's stylish updating of a nineteenth-century German opera by Heinrich August Marschner for BBC2, and Shimako...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bogue, Ronald L. "The Heartless Darkness of Apocalypse Now." Georgia Review XXXV, No. 3 (Fall 1981): 611-26.

Interprets the ending of Coppola's Apocalypse Now based on the assertion that the film is an imitation of Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, as opposed to an adaptation.

Calhoun, John. Review of Coppola and Eiko on "Bram Stoker's Dracula," by Francis Ford Coppola and Eiko Ishioka. TCI: Theatre Crafts International 27, No. 2 (February 1993): 56.

Discusses the importance of the costumes in Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, as...

(The entire section is 349 words.)