Until 2012, the British Film Institute’s prestigious Sight & Sound poll paired The Godfather and The Godfather Part II as one entry, which made life slightly easier for critics who couldn’t choose between the two. It’s not unreasonable to think of them as one unified but serpentine narrative: As Pauline Kael said, they come together in your head as you watch.
The second film, which was the first major motion picture to festoon its title with a Part II epithet (reboot idea: The God4ather: God Fatherer), seems to flow out of the first film, a natural continuation. Coppola’s superimpositions and dissolves carry us, like a parent holding a sleepy child, between scenes of a young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro, nailing the sublime cadences of Marlon Brando) in the early 1900s and his son Michael (Al Pacino) in the 1950s, ambitiously juxtaposing their respective ascensions and legacies. Together, the two films, in their original order, exist in the mire of moral ambiguity. The careful pairing of past and present shows, with startling diligence given the sordid material, how Vito’s use of violence possesses a kind of Sicilian honor that Michael, face increasingly consumed by shadow, gradually loses.
The Godfather 1902-1959: The Complete Epic, now streaming on HBO, combines both films and sutures in 75 minutes of additional footage, resulting in a seven-hour behemoth of chiaroscuro lighting and familial disintegration, which sounds awesome. It also unfolds chronologically, which is not so awesome.
A slightly altered version of Epic, then called The Godfather Saga (and later The Godfather Epic in yet another version – it’s very confusing), aired as a miniseries on NBC in November 1977, over four straight nights — with violence expunged, of course. With Saga, NBC execs hoped to take advantage of television’s vast audience and rope in those too young to have seen the films in theaters. Coppola, allegedly needing money to continue work on his beautiful nightmare Apocalypse Now, agreed to make the seven-hour cut with editor Barry Malkin, who didn’t work on the first film. Saga didn’t draw as many viewers as expected, though.
With Epic, HBO seems to be tapping into the appeal of binge-watching and the control allotted to at-home streaming services. (Note that the two films aren’t streaming separately.) Hey, people will watch a whole season of House of Cards in a night, and House of Cards is awful. Why wouldn’t they watch seven hours of The Godfather?
By fusing the two films and straightening out the elliptical narrative, Epic denies you the joy of putting the films together. The editing is technically impressive, with Malkin and Coppola making the transitions as un-awkward as possible. But in doing so — and Coppola surely knows this — they strip the films of all associative poetry. While not as abysmal as George Lucas’ CGI-spangled Star Wars bastard spawn, the new cut adds nothing of value; just more minutes, more information, more wadding between the majestic moments. Compare it to Apocalypse Now: Redux, which Coppola made not for profit but for passion. Or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a film that, for 20 years, appeared to be a perpetual work-in-progress, whose final-final version finally (finally) rectified the various afflictions that made previous cuts insufferable.
As a Frankenstein-y concoction partially comprising the refuse of two masterpieces, The Godfather Epic offers a keen look at craftsmanship and authorial intent, of the same ilk as Scott’s working cut of Blade Runner. For cinephiles with a lot of time to kill, the seven-hour mélange is fascinating.