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WTW debates — The Godfather vs The Godfather Part II

Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II
Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II (Image credit: Paramount Pictures (AA Film Archive / Alamy Stock Photo))

Right off the bat, we should probably make it clear that we think both The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are all-time classics and rightfully belong on the list of greatest movies ever made. But where’s the fun in simply lauding Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia masterpieces? Let’s dive into the tough question, which movie is better — The Godfather or The Godfather Part II? We’re ready to make our case for each in our What to Watch debate.

Of course, we can’t start this debate without mentioning the elephant in the room — The Godfather Part III. While Coppola’s reworking of Part III, 2020’s The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, brought a new perspective on the much-maligned final chapter of the trilogy, the movie just can’t live up to the richness and spectacle of the first two Godfather movies. So we’re closing the door, quietly, on Part III.

The Godfather celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2022. Celebrations include a limited run in movie theaters and the upcoming drama series The Offer — covering the making of the movie. Let's get on with it — is The Godfather or The Godfather Part II the better movie?

The Godfather

The first lines of The Godfather are "I believe in America," spoken by Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) to Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), The Godfather. These words opening the movie foreshadow that this is just as much a story about the American dream as it is about a mafia family. The lengths that people are willing to go to create a better life for themselves and their families, and the toll the pursuit of that dream takes, is the heart of the film.

We meet the Corleone family on Connie’s wedding day — the Godfather’s only daughter. We see the power and respect that Vito wields and meet the key members of the family — eldest son Sonny (James Caan), adopted son Tom (Robert Duvall), the overlooked Fredo (John Cazale) and the reluctant child Michael (Al Pacino), who has returned from the Army with his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton). The happy occasion doesn’t last long.

Rivals attempt to kill the Godfather. Though he ultimately survives, this threat brings Michael into the family fold, leading him to kill two men and then forcing him into exile for a while. Later, Sonny is killed, meaning Michael becomes the heir apparent.

After Vito dies (of natural causes), Michael makes a series of bold moves that secures his family’s position against their rivals. These actions affirm that he has fully embraced the power and violence that go with stepping into his father’s footsteps, but at what cost?

The Godfather Part II

After the huge critical and commercial success of The Godfather, which made over $250 million (over $1.6 billion adjusted for inflation) and won three Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Actor, for Marlon Brando), you'd think there was only one way for the sequel to go ... downhill. And yet, just two years later Coppola created another epic that expanded the tightly-woven world of The Godfather and turned it into a gripping tragedy on a Shakespearean scale.

The second chapter in the gangster saga covers Vito Corleone's early life (here played by Robert De Niro), how he rose to power, moved to the US and how the family came into being. In parallel, the film also acts as a sequel to the events of the first movie, following Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) as, with every step, plan and act of violence he transforms into the Don.

The Godfather Part II was a less commercially successful movie, making just $47million but critically it fared even better, taking home six of the 11 Oscars it was nominated for. One of those was another Best Picture Oscar making it the only sequel in history to win Best Picture after its original had won.

Best Vito Corleone

Marlon Brando in The Godfather

Marlon Brando in The Godfather (Image credit: Paramount Pictures (Allstar Picture Library Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo))

It’s incredible to think that Paramount did not want Marlon Brando for this role, famously making him do a screen test. Thankfully, Brando proved them wrong and gave one of the best performances of his career and one of the most iconic characters in movie history.

The soft, raspy voice, bulldog-like cheeks and greased back hair are all instantly identifiable traits of Brando’s Vito Corleone, but it is the grace and dignity that he gives a character who at the same time can be so intimidating to all those around him. That performance is what makes us admire a killer who garners power as he lurks in the shadows.

With all due respect to Robert De Niro —  who is very good as a young Vito in The Godfather Part II — a large element of his performance is based on imitation. We’ll take the original every day.

Winner: The Godfather

Best villain

Lee Strasberg talking to Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II

Lee Strasberg and Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II (Image credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

There are multiple opposing forces in The Godfather — Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), Moe Greene (Alex Rocco) and ultimately Barzini (Richard Conte). However, they all are merely stand-ins for the bigger idea of the five rival families against the Corleones and none of these characters have much staying power. 

Conversely, Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) in Part II is a worthy opponent to Michael and one the audience gets to know much more than anyone in The Godfather. This is where The Godfather Part II edges it — Hyman Roth is our best villain.

Winner: The Godfather Part II

Best ending

Al Pacino sitting in a chair in The Godfather Part II

(Image credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

Both endings make us understand in the most visceral of ways how much Michael Corleone has evolved. The ending of The Godfather where the door closes on Kay as Michael embraces his new role is a true gut-punch. When the door closes, she, and we, realize that the goodness in Michael is gone, shut away forever. He has lied to Kay about his involvement in killing Carlo and it represents the final nail in the coffin of her dreams that Michael might still be (however hidden) the version of the man she first fell in love with.

Yet the ending of The Godfather Part II is even more heart-breaking. Coppola counterbalances Michael, in the present day, coldly ordering his brother’s murder along with other rivals, with scenes of the young, outsider, Michael convinced that he’ll never be a part of the business. The ability of Al Pacino to express the level of pain that Michael is feeling as he sits with everything he has done and its cost is a masterclass in acting. For optimists who believe in free will it's a devastating transformation — with every move Michael makes he moves further into the web that destiny has set for him, paying for his father’s sins, until he's utterly alone, having betrayed everyone and everything of value to him. Invincible but destroyed from within.

Winner: The Godfather Part II

Most iconic scene

Al Pacino holds a gun in The Godfather

Al Pacino in The Godfather (Image credit: TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo)

I will forever love the scene between Michael and Fredo in the boathouse where Fredo admits his true feelings about his place in the family. Cazale does the best acting here out of anyone in the entire series. Of course, there are plenty of great scenes all throughout The Godfather Part II. There are just more in The Godfather.

The opening wedding sequence, the horse head in the bed, Sonny’s murder, Luca Brazi sleeping with the fishes, the baptism/assassination sequence and the final scene between Michael and Kay are all fabulous and instantly recallable to fans of the movies.

Forced to pick one, however, we're going with Michael murdering Sollozzo and Capt. McCluskey. The scene is incredibly tense. The dialogue (mostly in Italian and without subtitles) is not important, as we’re just watching the wheels turn in Michael’s head as he comes to grips with having to kill these two men. The overwhelming sound of the train as he pulls the trigger and then the playing of the iconic score, once he drops the gun, make this a masterfully crafted scene. It is one of the most important scenes in the Godfather saga, as it begins Michael’s descent to the dark side.

Winner: The Godfather

Best quotes

Al Pacino holding John Cazale's face in The Godfather Part II

(Image credit: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo)

Both the screenplays for The Godfather and The Godfather Part II won Oscars and both are littered with all-time great lines. All of The Godfather Part II’s most memorable lines are Michael’s and they all link back to the tough choices Michael makes to stay on top — "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer" and "I know it was you Fredo."

The Godfather’s lines are flashy and instantly recognizable. Lines like "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes" and Marlon Brando’s "I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse" are so infamous they’ve been parodied, memed and are such familiar phrases that people probably know them without having ever seen the movie — not bad for a film a half-century old. The American Film Institute ranked "I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse" as the second-best movie quote of all time (opens in new tab).

Winner: The Godfather

Conclusion

Reluctantly we're going to have to choose. And although we love The Godfather Part II and its ambitious, tragic scope, based on our debate criteria The Godfather just edges this debate.

Michael Balderston
Michael Balderston

Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Peaky Blinders, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Saturday Night Live, Only Murders in the Building and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun.

With contributions from