It’s one of those legendary stories that they still tell in Hollywood, standing the test of time, with a couple of aspects that can help us understanding a bit more about how the history of cinema has gone in those years. It’s about Sergio Leone, Francis Ford Coppola, two all-time iconic gangster movies like The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in America and a dedication to their own principles by certain filmmakers that is poetry.
It’s 1970. Paramount Pictures bought the rights of the novel The Godfather, written by the Italian-American writer Mario Puzo, for $12,500, an offer that the writer accepted on the fly in order to pay a ten thousand dollars gambling debt. Having the movie rights and the producer already designated (Albert Ruddy), the next step was to find the right director and there was no doubt about who was the first choice for Paramount Studios: Sergio Leone. At that time, the Italian director was already a star, the movies of his Dollars Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly) had defined the myth of Clint Eastwood and invented the so-called Spaghetti Western. Moreover, the recent Once Upon a Time in the West had consecrated him as a filmmaker able to overturn the classic schemes of Western cinema, while still producing a film which was able to please every kind of spectator.
Sergio Leone, in the most polite manner, with no adding too many motivations, declined the offer. Later we discovered that Leone didn’t like Mario Puzo’s story, and above all he did not like the edulcorated impression and the “ethics” that the script returned about mafia and about the godfather Vito Corleone. In fact, he already had a clear idea of how to transport Mafia and gangsters into a movie: it’s what he was going to do with Once Upon a Time in America, a movie that will have a very slow production and will be released only 14 years later. But a movie that showed once for all how Leone intended mafia: a story of violent men who overwhelm other men, who tear each other apart; nothing close to honour to be respected or ethical values to be defended, like The Godfather wanted to show.
The most curious thing is the list of other directors who was contacted after Leone’s refusal, before coming to Francis Ford Coppola: Peter Bogdanovich, Peter Yates, Richard Brooks, Arthur Penn, Costa-Gavras and Otto Preminger. In the end, the name of Francis Ford Coppola was eventually mentioned, and with The Godfather he reached glory and tapped the grossing record in the history of the United States (record that the movie maintained until Jaws, 1975). And of course, Coppola’s godfather returned the image of mafia that we know, with the old generation of gangsters represented by Vito Corleone, faithful to his own principles of justice and honour (aversion to drugs, respect for the family and willingness to give private justice to those who deal with something unfair, in exchange for favors that help to maintain the prestige of the family).
Sergio Leone hated the message sent by The Godfather when it was released, and obviously he hated the incredible success that the movie had. A movie that he could have shot, if it just wasn’t against his own ethical principles. For Leone, cinema was not only a matter of performing a task and producing revenues: it was a pure esthete, a perfectionist capable of shooting a scene forty times before declaring it good, or rejecting a script sent by a famous writer because he didn’t understand the spirit of the movies (both true anecdotes related to Once Upon a Time in America: the writer was Normal Mailer and the scene was an expensive shot that passed to history as a symbol of his picky character).
Eventually The Godfather was released, Coppola made it, it was a huge success and it has been considered one of the most beautiful films ever, even for that romantic character used to treat a dirty topic like mafia. Once Upon a Time in America landed as well (years later), Sergio Leone made it (of course) and even that was peacefully considered one of the masterpieces of cinema of all time, as well as one of the examples still highly mentioned in schools of cinema.
Comparisons, charts and rankings are not the things that legitimate discussions around cinema. It’s the anecdotes, the curiosities, that make history magical.