Where to begin with Francis Ford Coppola

A beginner’s path through the career of Francis Ford Coppola: the New Hollywood masterpieces and out the other side.

28 February 2022

By Brogan Morris

The Godfather (1972)

Why this might not seem so easy

Francis Ford Coppola burned bright and early as a filmmaker. One of the ambitious young ‘movie brats’ who came of age in the 1970s alongside the likes of George Lucas and Martin Scorsese, Coppola worked his way up from directing material for softcore flicks and Roger Corman cheapies in his early 20s, won his first Oscar at 32 and had already made all his masterpieces by 40.

But while it’s true that Coppola stood tallest in the New Hollywood era, when he made four films that alone cemented him as one of the great American filmmakers, his artistic value by no means begins and ends there. To date, Coppola’s career has spanned six fascinatingly fluid decades, and taken in all kinds and sizes of movie.

In the 70s, Coppola made big, serious art on the cutting-edge; in the 80s and early 90s, he almost exclusively directed period pieces, many of which played around with classic cinema styles; and in the last 15 years, he’s shifted again to test the possibilities of new filmmaking technology in a series of experimental projects. Even after 60 years, it’s still uncertain who exactly Francis Ford Coppola is as a filmmaker: a classicist content to be a director-for-hire, or an experimenter whose films have occasionally flirted with the avant garde?

The best place to start – The Godfather and The Godfather Part II

“The Godfather was an accident”, is how its director puts it. Following an Oscar win for co-writing Franklin J. Schaffner’s Patton (1970), Coppola was offered the chance to adapt Mario Puzo’s blockbuster mafia novel The Godfather for Paramount. With his intention having always been to direct small, personal films, Coppola accepted the big gig, reluctantly, in large part to pay off debts accrued on his own independent productions. He would use the studio resources newly at his disposal to create an epic American tragedy in two parts.

The Godfather (1972)

Charting the rise of the Corleone crime family over six decades, The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) chiefly concern the dual evolution of two men: Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando in the first film, Robert De Niro in Part II), from orphaned Sicilian immigrant to feared New York mob boss and beloved family man; and his son, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), from idealistic American patriot to calculating, dead-eyed mafioso.

Coppola may have considered his Godfather adaptation to be mercenary, but he imbued it with themes that would recur throughout his work: the value of family; ambition and war as particularly male obsessions; what it means to live in America and feel apart from it. Rare examples of cinema where all the elements – rich storytelling, exact performances, indelible music, golden chiaroscuro cinematography – work in luxurious harmony, the first two Godfather films are also among the most personal works of Coppola’s career.

What to watch next

In recent years Coppola has taken to remastering and recutting his films, delivering new (and more warmly received) variations of The Outsiders (1983), The Cotton Club (1984) and The Godfather Part III (1990). The director first got a taste for revisiting his filmography, however, with Apocalypse Now, the 1979 Vietnam epic to which he added 49 minutes and a couple of contentious scenes for a 2001 ‘Redux’, and which he returned to again in 2019 for a less sprawling Final Cut. 

Apocalypse Now (1979)

In any version, Coppola’s Apocalypse is a spectacular odyssey, a grim fantasia blending Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, real Vietnam war stories and the fevered imaginings of Coppola and screenwriter John Milius, into what may amount to the finest war picture ever made.

Coppola’s big budget New Hollywood classics confirm his command of large-scale storytelling at his peak, but he also directed a more intimate masterpiece in this period. Made in between Godfather I and II, 1974’s The Conversation is cool and minimalist where those films are rich and operatic. Starring Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a lonely surveillance expert who becomes entangled in a conspiracy more sinister than he can comprehend, The Conversation is a paranoid thriller soaked in the hopelessness of the Watergate era. Culminating in a despairing final sequence, it’s the most cynical film made by a filmmaker more often given to earnestness.

Coppola would inevitably struggle to top his 70s imperial phase, something that critics felt was confirmed by his 1982 musical flop One from the Heart. Today more charitably viewed as a visually striking fusion of Old Hollywood artificiality and New Hollywood grit, but savaged on release, its commercial failure would see Coppola scale back and finally get back around to making his ‘personal films’, in what would prove to be a richly creative decade for the filmmaker.

Rumble Fish (1983)

In 1983, Coppola delivered back to back S.E. Hinton adaptations, both stirringly heightened YA melodramas about warring youths on the poverty line in small-town USA, but altogether different in their stylistic inspirations. While The Outsiders is a “Gone with the Wind for 14-year-old girls” soundtracked by 60s pop and with primary visuals that mimic three-strip Technicolor, Rumble Fish is a monochromatic mood piece that takes its cues photographically from German expressionism and sonically from 80s avant-garde music.

Following another commercially unsuccessful big budget experiment – 1984’s The Cotton Club, an uneven mix of musical numbers and Prohibition-era gangster pic – Coppola looked to the past again for two of his most purely enjoyable films. In fantasy comedy Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), discontented housewife Kathleen Turner passes out at her high school reunion and time-travels back 25 years, to a bygone era of pastel and doo-wop. Even more rose-tinted is Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), a sunlit biopic powered by a winning Jeff Bridges performance. As revolutionary auto entrepreneur Preston Tucker, Bridges, like the film, is Capraesque, his sugar-coated optimism disguising darker depths.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Into the 90s and beyond, the Coppola catalogue becomes shakier. There are bright spots: a bloodthirsty take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), with Gary Oldman as roaringly heightened as the baroque decor in the role of the lascivious, lovesick count; sturdy if unadventurous legal drama The Rainmaker (1997), the best of the rush of 90s John Grisham adaptations; and the atmospheric Buenos Aires-set family drama Tetro (2009).

One for serious Coppolaphiles only is the romantic fantasy Youth Without Youth (2007). Starring Tim Roth as a 70-year-old Romanian linguist miraculously regenerated as a young man in mid-20th-century Europe, it’s narratively confounding and not a little pretentious, though also highly individual, a delicate, abstract meditation on time and creativity from a filmmaker leaving conventional cinema behind.

Once they’ve reached the end, completists will want to go back to the beginning. Best among the four features Coppola directed in the 60s is The Rain People (1969), a kind of Five Easy Pieces with a female gaze, but there’s value to be found in the eclectic trio that preceded it: Psycho-aping B-horror Dementia 13 (1963); frenetic, Hard Day’s Night-inspired coming-of-age comedy You’re a Big Boy Now (1966); even the supremely dated Technicolor musical Finian’s Rainbow (1968). Through his 60s films you can watch Coppola, in the industry a decade already by the time The Godfather came along, developing as a filmmaker while he searches for a style all of his own.

Where not to start

With his 2020 Coda cut of the film, Coppola brought welcome neatening touches to The Godfather Part III, 1990’s little-loved continuation of the Corleone saga – truthfully always a handsome and capably acted film. No amount of tweaks, though, can change the fact that Part III is an addendum to a story that didn’t need one, a legacyquel brought into being by its director in a period of financial struggle.

Godfather III is at least not a disaster on the level of Coppola’s very worst. Misjudged from start to finish, the 1996 comedy Jack stars fortysomething Robin Williams as a 10-year-old cursed by impossibly accelerated ageing, an already precarious comic set-up that Coppola inexplicably approaches as if it’s tragedy.

Shakier still is Coppola’s last theatrical feature to date, 2011’s Twixt, an amateurish smalltown horror whose craft would appear almost careless. For such a formidable director, it’s a regrettable footnote — though potentially not for long. Given that Coppola soon plans to go into production on Megalopolis, the long-gestating sci-fi passion project he calls his “dream picture”, we may still be due one more great film.

Sight and Sound: the April 2022 issue

In this issue: The Godfather at 50, Sean Baker on Red Rocket, Hamaguchi at the movies, Jacques Audiard on Paris, 13th District and an exploration of Bradford on film. Plus the best from the Berlinale, all the latest news and reviews and much more…

Sight and Sound: the April 2022 issue
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