By the time Act I ends with the killing of Solozzo the Turk and Police Captain McCluskey at Louis Italian-American Restaurant—and the first act-break montage concludes—the run-time is already that of a pretty standard film, around an hour and 25 minutes.
And at that point we have an entire story replete with a full character arc: The established kingdom is facing a new threat, a Turk who has an unassailable Shield, and our realm’s king, Godfather Vito Corleone (trans., Lionheart), has been stricken. So the youngest and worthiest of his three sons, Michael, must set aside his life as an errant soldier removed from the troubles to of the kingdom (That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.) to become the new prince who must take up the sword to defend lord and land. Even though it means his indefinite exile from his family and his lady, he fulfills his duty as the reluctant yet formidable knight-protector. The end.
And the entirety of this Act I film is set during Christmastime.
Meanwhile, Luca Brasi dons his armor and prepares his weapon while the radio plays Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, ironically announcing that “from now on your troubles will be out of sight.”
The Godfather likewise wishes the fruit vendor a merry Christmas before being gunned down. And the gateway to his hospital, where Michael stands guard as protector, glows with the halo of Christmas lights.
And so on.
But it’s not a Christmas movie only because of that either. For me and my family, the film was an unofficial Christmas tradition. I remember my grandfather—an old-school patriarch in his own right, whom we all called “Papa Jack”—as he distractedly stoked the flames in the fireplace under the twinkle of lights from the retro Christmas tree and sputnik-era ornaments, while he watched The Godfather playing on the old box TV. I can’t tell you how many years this same scene played out. We would all gather down there in the basement lounge—a low-ceilinged spread which could have been a set on the Dean Martin Show—and we nestled into the endless couches to watch Michael Corleone fire shots into McCluskey’s throat and forehead as we waited for the warm cheer of our Christmas Eve festivities to commence.
But it’s not a Christmas movie only because of that either. Act I of The Godfather is a true Christmas movie at its very heart.
Think about what Christmas movies are all about, from the odd excellence of It’s a Wonderful Life, to the cheesiest installment in the Hallmark franchise, to any version of the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol.
But for a character to reach that ideal state of “Christmas-actualization”—well, it’s tough to do. It requires self-sacrifice, and it even requires facing death, literally.
This can come in the form of bridge suicide and an alternate world in which you have been annihilated. Or it’s the frantic life-or-death search for a lost child out in the freezing weather on Christmas Eve. Or it’s the travel to your own funeral with the black-cloaked Ghost of Christmas Future.
But then, when it becomes clear that it’s not that easy, that sacrifice is necessary, you have to take up the role of a protective angel, like your namesake, in this case a kind of Christmas angel of death. Saving your loved ones from villains might mean that you are exiled from them, but now that you’ve changed and have become a part of the family again, now that you’ve found your rightful place, you know it’s what you have to do. That’s what family and love is all about. That’s what Christmas is all about.
at his website.