The Godfather Movie Analysis
Quiet and Secret, Fair and Orderly: Michael Corleone’s Embodiment of Sun Tzu in Francis Coppola’s The Godfather
Although Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) captivates audiences with its mafia storyline of the Corleone family, it surprisingly interweaves the themes of ancient Chinese military strategist and theorist Sun Tzu into the strategy of its main character, Michael Corleone. Based out of New York City, the Corleone family initially operates under the guidance of the godfather Vito Corleone, assisted by his counsel Tom Hagen. Vito’s three sons, Sonny, Fredo, and Michael, all have contrasting personalities and differing visions for the future of the family, which is currently involved with illegal gambling and political corruption.
Four other families are vying for control and power over New York City, and Michael Corleone instinctively embodies the strategy in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War in response to their constant threats. The eventual victory and total dominance over the other four families is a direct result of Sun Tzu’s influence, and this framework can best be paralleled in the following scenes. After rival family head Bruno Tattaglia orders Virgil Sollozzo to shoot Vito outside a vegetable stand in downtown New York , Vito recovers at a local hospital under police 1 protection. One night, the police protection, all the hospital workers, and all the other patients are ordered to abandon the hospital.
Due to the local police chief’s alliance with Sollozzo, hitmen are ordered to assassinate Vito at the hospital.2 Michael and a friend of the family, a local baker, arrive in time to move Vito to another room. With the hitmen approaching outside, Vito and the baker ready themselves to defend Vito, realizing from the teachings of Sun Tzu, “even if opponents are numerous, they can be made not to fight.” Standing outside of the hospital’s front 3 door on steps elevated above street level, they pretend to carry pistols in their coat pockets while “keeping higher land to [their] right rear, with the low ground in front”. Occupying the high 5 ground allows them to see the car approaching from out of the darkness a greater distance as well as see into the car to determine the number of hitmen.
First to the ‘battlefield’, Michael and the baker increase their advantage against the potential attackers through this elevation difference Sun Tzu describes as, “on steep terrain, if you are the first, you should occupy the high and sunny side” . Having this positional advantage 6 allows Michael and the baker to disobey Sun Tzu’s conventional wisdom that, “if you are fewer, then keep away if you are able” .
Three men pull up in front of the hospital and immediately 7 recognize their positional disadvantage, as they see the only way to enter the hospital is to fight up the steps which Sun Tzu advises against, “when fighting on a hill, do not climb.” In addition to positioning and readiness, the hitmen in the car question the number of Corleone members present. Michael and the baker standing outside in the cold indicates that there is not enough room for them inside due to excess security. They are appearing to be strong when they are weak, reversing a Sun Tzu comment on deception where “even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective” At a positional, numerical, 9 and readiness disadvantage, the hitmen start the car back up and drive away; a clear non-violent victory for Michael and the baker; the best form of victory according to Sun Tzu.
After the hitmen leave the hospital and the police chief beats up Michael , Michael 10 swears revenge on the Tattaglia family.
A meeting between Michael, the narcotics head Virgil Sollozzo, and the police captain Mark McCluskey is arranged at Loui’s, a local Italian restaurant. With Vito still recovering, Michael sees this opportunity to assert himself within the family and show that he is capable of more responsibility. The location of the meeting is intended to be a secret, but is revealed to the Corleone family through a general informant in McCluskey’s precinct, which violates Sun Tzu’s precaution that “the formation and procedure used by the 11 military should not be divulged beforehand.”12
The Corleone family sets up an execution plan with knowledge of the location allowing Peter Clemenza to plant a pistol beforehand, a solid relationship with the restaurant owner who will look the other way regarding the violence, and informants in the local police that will guarantee a slow response time. Only with these decisive advantages can the Corleone family guarantee success, as Sun Tzu says, “good warriors take their stand on ground where they cannot lose.” A key element of the plan is to sneak attack Sollozzo and McCluskey as they 13 comfortably eat dinner with their guard down, incorporating Sun Tzu’s calling to “attack when they are unprepared, make your move when they do not expect it.” Sure enough, due to these 14 factors, the mission is flawlessly executed, and Michael’s volunteering for this mission illustrates Sun Tzu’s observation that “if the army is unsettled, it means the general is not taken seriously.” With the recent hospitalization of Vito and the chaotic nature of Sonny’s decision-making 15 causing the family to be unsettled about the future, Michael solidifies that he has the potential to lead the family and reassures them that operations can still be carried out despite Vito not calling the shots.
With Vito Corleone still recovering, Sonny assumes the role of leader of the family and immediately exerts the style of leadership Sun Tzu warns about in his writing about the general. Sun Tzu states that “a government should not mobilize an army out of anger” and “those who 16 are quick to anger can be shamed.” Sonny is hot-headed and impulsive with his 17 decision-making, emotionally interpreting family business as personal attacks . As a result, the 18 Corleone family begins to question his ability to lead. Sun Tzu confirms that “if the army is unsettled, it means the general is not taken seriously.” Sonny’s impulsiveness is most evident in 19 the case of his assassination.
Emilio Barzini, the head of the Barzini rival family, hires the husband of Sonny’s sister, Connie, to beat her to trigger Sonny to rush to help. Connie’s frantic call to Sonny for help sets the trap in motion, as he rushes to help, filled with rage and giving no attention to possible dangers. Sonny is ambushed by the Barzini family while stopped at a toll booth, never giving a thought to the idea that Carlo could be working for another family.
On the other hand, Michael more resembles Vito with his calm, rational decision-making towards chaotic family matters following Sun Tzu’s advice to “using order to deal with the disorderly, using calm to deal with the clamorous.” Michael is more patient than Sonny, as he “act[s] after 20 having made assessments” and, deserving of approval from Sun Tzu, first considers all the 21 angles of a situation before responding. In addition, Michael’s demeanor is characteristic of a Sun Tzu-inspired leader, as his “business of the general is quiet and secret, fair and orderly”22 and his leadership genius “do[es] not repeat [his] tactics but responds to circumstances in an infinite variety of ways.” Sonny by contrast only responds with violence, and this predictability 23 arising from a single response type is ultimately the cause of his death.
At Vito’s funeral, Michael is in full control of the Corleone family, and a supposed ally of Michael, Salvatore Tessio, calls him to a meeting between the heads of the five families.24 Reminiscent of an earlier conversation Michael had with Vito about being cautious if invited to such a meeting, Michael learns that he is the target of an assassination attempt, and takes out the leaders of the other four families before the gathering to consolidate power. This is a cue from 25 Sun Tzu as “the superior militarist strikes while schemes are being laid” and “strike the 26 slumping and receding” This plan also has the aftereffect of disorganizing the other families 27 into submission, as Sun Tzu advises to “take away the energy of their armies, and take away the heart of their generals.” Michael recognizes that the heads of the families are the life and soul 28 of their members, and this stripping of energy and leadership parallels the death of generals of military campaigns.
Sun Tzu and his ideals in The Art of War are explicitly portrayed through decisive scenes in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Michael and the baker’s positional advantage while standing outside the hospital guarding Vito Corleone allowed them to disobey Sun Tzu concerning the number of troops required for obtaining victory in battle.
By Michael leading by example and taking out Sollozzo and McCluskey in Loui’s, he settles down his family and proves that he has the potential to lead. Michael is the son that most resembles Vito with his calm, rational decision-making towards chaotic family matters. Sony’s impulsiveness and violation of the key traits required for generals by Sun Tzu ultimately lead to his death. Finally, Michael recognizes that the heads of the families are the life and soul of their people, and uses Sun Tzu’s teaching to attack when the others are relaxed and have their guard down, allowing Michael to have an easy victory and obtain victory.
Written by Paul Griessel Jr.
1 The Godfather 44:50-44:60
2 Ibid, 1:00:00-1:10:00
3 Tzu, Sun, and Thomas Cleary. The Art of War. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2019., 894 The Godfather 1:07:10-1:07:41
5 Tzu, Sun, and Thomas Cleary. The Art of War. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2019., 118 6 Ibid, 134
7 Ibid, 45
8 Ibid, 116
9 Ibid, 11
10 The Godfather 1:08:25-1:09:56
11 Ibid, 1:18:50-1:19:04
12 Tzu, Sun, and Thomas Cleary. The Art of War. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2019., 19 13 Ibid, 63
14 Ibid, 18
15 Ibid, 126
17 Ibid, 114
18 The Godfather 1:35:10-1:35-51
19 Tzu, Sun, and Thomas Cleary. The Art of War. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2019.,126
20 Ibid, 105
21 Ibid, 101
22 Ibid, 151
23 Ibid, 100
24 The Godfather 2:34:54-2:35:15
25 Ibid, 2:37:44-2:41:29
26 Tzu, Sun, and Thomas Cleary. The Art of War. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2019., 35
27 Ibid, 104
28 Ibid, 103
The Godfather Movie Analysis The Godfather Movie Analysis The Godfather Movie Analysis The Godfather Movie Analysis The Godfather Movie Analysis The Godfather Movie Analysis The Godfather Movie Analysis The Godfather Movie Analysis The Godfather Movie Analysis The Godfather Movie Analysis The Godfather Movie Analysis The Godfather Movie Analysis The Godfather Movie Analysis The Godfather Movie Analysis