The Politics of Blood: A Thematic Comparison of the Films the Godfather and Elizabeth

Blood. The heat of blood throbbing through veins contains more influence than merely its life sustaining capabilities. Blood is the proof, the sign, and the seal of succession in patriarchal societies. Whether this power is passed through the glory of God in the royal family of 16th century England or from father to son in the gangster world of 20th century America, some indefinable quality of blood gives it the ability to determine the conference of power from one generation to the next. Yet, the transition of power from one ruler to another is not always a simple process. The problems surrounding succession are at the core of director Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1972 film, The Godfather. This masterpiece explores the problems of a crumbling organized crime empire and the struggle for one man to reclaim it in the name of his father. Twenty-six years later, director Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth follows a similar divination of blood in the ascendancy of the throne in a weakened England. These two movies detail the seizure of power by an unlikely candidate and show the development of the heir, from young innocent to seasoned veteran. Both Michael Corleone and the young Queen Elizabeth must go to extraordinary lengths and tremendous personal changes to fully flesh out their roles as leaders. By the end of both films, the choice has swallowed the individual, and each character must abandon their human emotions and impulses in order to garner power.

The beginning of The Godfather finds the future leader of the Corleone family as the least likely aspirant for power. Michael Corleone shows up late to his sister’s wedding, a decorated war hero far removed from the criminal workings of his family. He has chosen a WASP girlfriend, Kay Adams, and sits with her on the sunlit patio while his father deliberates inside his dark study. Coppola contrasts these two light and dark settings with another by constantly cutting back and forth between them. The world of the sunny, loud wedding epitomizes the events of everyday normal family life. The world of power is contained in the dark, plush, quiet hush of Don Corleone’s study. Roger Ebert viewed such scenes as the expressive ability of Gordon Willis’ cinematography, “celebrated for its darkness; it is rich, atmospheric, expressive.” Thus, Michael’s placement in this opening scene further illuminates that he is an outsider from his family, not affiliated with its dark underpinnings; he wants a normal life. Yet, Kay is curious about the workings of his family. She asks him about Tom Hogan, whereupon Michael briefly answers and abruptly changes the subject, asking, “You like your lasagna?” When Kay continues her questions, asking Michael about the surprising appearance of the star Johnny Fontane at the wedding, he caves in a bit and tells her of his father’s granted favor, the offer that could not be refused. Michael further separates himself from his family when he says to his shocked companion, “That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.” He tries to separate himself from a world in which one must put a gun to someone’s head in order to obtain a favor. After delivering this line, the impeccable Al Pacino plays the moment perfectly by quickly averting his eyes. Michael is trying to deny the darkness in his blood.

The imperceptible power of blood holds similar sway the first time the young Elizabeth appears on the scene in Kapur’s movie. She is also an improbable candidate for succession in her family, which happens to be the ruling family of England at the time. Her legitimacy as a candidate for the throne is tremulous due to doubts about the purity of her blood, the fact that she is a woman, and her religion. The camera first finds her in a bright field with her serving maids, dancing lightly in the sunlight. The man she loves, Robert Dudley comes up behind her, amidst the giggling of her companions, and asks her to dance. Elizabeth agrees, “if it please you sir,” and the scene cuts to them dancing in the interior of the estate where they dance with luxury, freedom, and abandon never allowed during the rest of the film. Kapur has the light fall from the window across their faces in sensuous illumination. Elizabeth’s carefree time in the open, green, shining expanse of the country does not last long. Much like Coppola does in the opening shots of The Godfather, Kapur has the action cut back between the country and the political conspiracies occurring in the dark, somber chambers of the court. This darkness spreads to overtake Elizabeth, who is implicated by her blood and religion in plots to overthrow the current Queen. The ferocious guard, illustrated with intimidating armor and black horses by Kapur’s dramatic tastes, rides up to Elizabeth’s abode and pronounces the charges of treason. Despite her attempts to escape it, the legacy of her blood has come to claim Elizabeth. Dudley, trying to shield her from the guard, whispers to her in farewell, “Remember who you are. Do not be afraid of them.”

Michael Corleone tries to deny who he is and the background he has come from throughout much of The Godfather. It is not until his father’s shooting that he gets drawn into the dark folds of the family business. In the desperation of trying to protect his enfeebled, injured, and extremely vulnerable father while he is in the hospital, something clicks. Michael saves his father’s life by moving his hospital bed and standing in front of the hospital with the innocent and terrified Enzo, directing him to pretend he has a gun in his pocket. Enzo is so shaken by his experience that he cannot even light his own cigarette due to his trembling hands. One of the many subtle turning points Coppola creates in visual context of the film occurs here as Michael lights Enzo’s cigarette calmly, visibly noticing that his hand is not shaking at all. This revelation is exasperated by his confrontation with the corrupt McCluskey, who attacks and indicts him in the crimes of his family, despite objections from a fellow officer, “the kid’s clean Captain. He’s a war hero. He’s never been busted for the rackets.” McCluskey ignores this statement and assaults Michael, adding the final insult to the injury. At this point, Michael becomes indoctrinated into the family by the rage in his blood. He wants revenge. He tells Tom and Sonny that he will kill McCluskey and Sollozzo and this shall be his baptism of violence and blood. Sonny laughs at the idea, responding in one of his more memorable and scathing speeches,

“Hey, whataya gonna to do, nice college boy, eh? Didn’t want to get mixed up in the Family business, huh? Now you wanna gun down a police captain, why, because he slapped ya in the face a little bit? Hah? What do you think this is the Army, where you shoot ’em a mile away? You’ve gotta get up close like this and bada-bing! you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.”

Sonny shows in this condescending diatribe that he does not deem Michael capable of the necessary violence. He ridicules Michael’s unwillingness to get “mixed up in the Family business” and scorns his motivations. Yet, Michael carries through with this murder and it is the first of many bloodbaths that propel him to the position of power at the end.

Elizabeth’s transformation from reluctant and unlikely ruler to fearsome Queen is more gradual than Michael’s identifiable crossing over moment. The failure of her romance with Dudley contributes greatly to the toughening of her character, and her resolve to reject all male suitors. After learning that he is married, she confronts Dudley in a dance in front of the court where he appeals to her emotions, and tries to placate her by saying, “you are still my Elizabeth.” She reacts in an eruption of anger, “I am not your Elizabeth! I am no man’s Elizabeth. If you think to rule me, you are mistaken. I will have one mistress here! And no master!” She realizes that as the Queen of England, no man will recognize and love her for being solely Elizabeth, they all want to rule or control her, to be her master. This realization leads her to the deeper conclusion that she cannot trust anyone. In this manner, she leaves the nervous, unconfident girl who once practiced her speeches before urging the Bishops to vote for a single Church. Kapur sets up this scene of vulnerability with great skill. He cuts the film between direct shots of Cate Blanchett’s wonderfully expressive face detailing the struggle of a girl trying to muster the caliber of a Queen and the dark, foreboding faces of the waiting bishops. Yet, despite her evolution from this naÃ?¯ve state by declaring herself sole ruler, Elizabeth must still deal with the conspirators against her life. Using her newfound bitterness as strength, she listens to Sir Francis Walsingham, her mysterious protector and advisor. He says, “A prince should never flinch from being blamed for acts of ruthlessness which are necessary for safeguarding the state and one’s own person.” This statement strikes at the core of both movies’ theme of violence necessary for power. She says, “let it all be done,” authorizing Walsingham to carry out the assassinations of those who would harm her. In the following climactic bloodbath montage, Elizabeth shows a heavy influence of the violent ending of the baptismal killings in The Godfather. In both of the movies, the camera details the gathering of weapons and then cuts rapidly from scene to scene where enemies are hunted down wherever they may be, in their lovers beds, etc, and slaughtered graphically, brutally, and bloodily. Each rampage ends in the confrontation of the closest traitor, Carlo in The Godfather, and Dudley in Elizabeth. Unlike Michael, Elizabeth chooses to keep Dudley alive, as an example, she says, “to always remind me of how close I came to danger.”

The elimination of his enemies leads to Michael’s final transformation from “nice college boy” to the new Godfather. In the last scene of the movie, his own sister confronts him over the final slaying, the murder of his brother-in-law Carlo. Connie screams at him, hysterical, “you lousy bastard – you killed my husband! You waited until Papa died so nobody could stop you, and then you killed him.” Even in her uncontrollable grief over her husband’s death, Connie points out the exact reason Carlo was killed. The old Don has passed on and it is time for the succession of the new. However, in order to be completely enveloped in his new world, and have the semblances of his old personality swallowed by the title of Godfather, Michael must sever his attachment with Kay, a figure of his old, emotional, innocent life. She must forever be separate from his new dark world. Thus, when she asks him whether Connie’s claims are true, he says to her, “this one time I will let you ask me about my affairs.” By saying this, he sets this moment up as the last opportunity she will have to truly be an equal part of his life. Yet, when she repeats her question, he lies and answers, “no.” In this moment, Kay is shut out of Michael’s life forever and he abandons the last fragment of his old self. As she leaves to get them a drink, Michael’s associates enter the room, Clemenza kisses his hand and addresses him as “Don Corleone.” They shut the door, and a new Godfather submits to the claims of his blood, completely commanding the family’s power.

Just as women are shut out in the world of The Godfather, Elizabeth continually struggles throughout Elizabeth with her role as a woman ruling in a fundamentally patriarchal society. At a pivotal point, she relieves Sir William from his position as her advisor, saying, “from now one, I am going to follow my own opinions.” He reacts by saying, “Forgive me madam, but you’re only a woman!” She is forced to defend herself in a man’s terms when she replies, “I may be a woman, Sir William, but if I choose, I have the heart of a man! I am my father’s daughter, and I am not afraid of anything.” In this moment, Elizabeth embraces her inheritance, but by doing so, she must reject her identity, her individuality and her past experiences in order to become a strong monarch. She does not own her body, as Sir William states in defense of his request to inspect her sheets for blood, “her Majesty’s body and person no longer belong to her, they belong to the state.” Kapur details this transformation with far less subtlety than Coppola, rather he makes the audience brutally aware of the change. Lamenting at the feet of a statue of the Virgin Mary, Elizabeth struggles with what she should do next. She asks Walsingham, “I have rid England of her enemies. What do I do now? Am I to be made of stone? Must I be touched by nothing?” He replies, “Aye madam, to reign supreme.” Thus, she must reinvent herself. In a particularly moving scene, her crying chambermaid cuts Elizabeth’s hair as she focuses a stony gaze directly into the camera, fingering the swaths of falling hair as she has flashbacks of her path to power, lingering on earlier carefree days with Dudley, and the life as a woman now denied to her. Newly shorn, She says, “God, I have become a Virgin.” In the last scene, Elizabeth appears stiffly from a white haze (a symbol of the transfer of her power used earlier in the film), painted starkly white, with her face cold and harsh. Elizabeth has remade herself into stone and she declares in a flat, severely deep monotone, “Observe Lord Burly, I am married to England.” The camera then frames directly her deadpan face and freezes as she sits on her throne, still as a statue. She has resigned to the duties she inherited in her blood, to give herself up in service to her country.

In the end of these two films, both Michael and Elizabeth must succumb to their inheritance. In doing so, they must rescind the qualities that set them apart from the others, the aspirations that were in the way of their rise to power. By shedding their previous desires, they are no longer Michael and Elizabeth, but become the Godfather and the Queen. They must answer to the politics of their blood. In a way, blood has become nearly a commodity in the context of these two worlds. It can buy authority, love, fame, people, and lives. It can be spilled or shed, but never wasted. A certain intangible quality of blood in these two films embodies the loyalty, fearlessness, and ruthlessness needed to satisfy the demands of supremacy. The heritage of power courses through the veins of The Godfather and Elizabeth, thick, hot, and undeniable. Blood.

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