Why NBC’s The Godfather Saga Is the Best Way to Watch the Trilogy


Summary

  • Francis Ford Coppola’s 1977 creation of The Godfather Saga attempted to re-frame the original films in chronological order for network TV.
  • Some enjoyed The Godfather Saga’s coherence and additional footage, while others believed it stripped away the original magic of the films.
  • The 1981 VHS version of The Godfather Saga is a chronological cut that includes the scenes removed during the television event.



There are plenty of films that end up at the top of lists called Best Films of All Time. There are the classics and the modern classics. The majority of these lists inevitably feature The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, or both films. However, for a long time, the only way to watch them was in the theater and separately. That was, until 1977.

That year, NBC aired The Godfather Saga, and it was made for a variety of reasons. What makes it so fascinating is how it aired, what it contained, and how it differed from the original two films.


The Original Movies Were a Hit


The thing to remember is that The Godfather was an absolute phenomenon. When it came out in 1972, the movie had a stacked cast that featured some of the best actors of the time, like Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, and more. It was a feat by Francis Ford Coppola that earned five Oscars and countless other prizes. The main cause for celebration was its effect on audiences. It was a smash hit and gave everyone a peek into a world that they’d previously only heard about through rumors. The source material, a book by Mario Puzo, had been published three years before and Puzo was involved in the making of all three films.

However, The Godfather Part II (1974) is often cited as the better of the two films. Where the first laid the groundwork, the second took the material and exploded onto the screen. It not only brought back the original cast but added Robert De Niro as the young Vito Corleone, showing us exactly how this character rose to power while also showing us the parallel to Michael’s rise to power decades later. The Godfather Part II not only won six Oscars but was the first sequel to win Best Picture.


These two films are often seen in a world of their own, with other great films not even touching the overall effect that the two Godfather movies had. It should be noted that The Godfather Part III was produced in 1990 and fell far below the high watermark of its predecessors.

What Is The Godfather Saga Cut?

In 1977, NBC approached Coppola to create an amalgam of his two films that could be aired on network television. The director agreed as he was in need of capital to create Apocalypse Now (1979). The final product was shown over the course of four nights. However, it was an immense undertaking as Coppola had a very interesting way of presenting his dual masterpieces.


Coppola realized that with time jumps and various storylines, his work would be difficult for new viewers. It was also brought to his attention that certain scenes of violence and sexual situations would not be fit for network television. This meant that not only did he work with his editor Barry Malkin to cut out fifteen scenes of sex and violence, but also to reframe the film to be in chronological order. This meant starting not with the original wedding but with a young Vito Corleone making his way to America. This version also included over an hour of additional footage that had previously been left on the cutting room floor.

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When it finally aired, the final product was scoffed at by the public and the press. People complained that it was too long, the award-winning formula had been pulled, and the films had lost the original magic that had made them so popular in the first place. Audiences lamented the fact that the saga, one that centered on the violence of a family, had stripped away the violent moments. Even important, well-known scenes, such as when Producer Jack Woltz finds a bloodied horse head in his bed, were edited for content.

However, those who did enjoy it were quick to point out that the story felt more coherent and that the violence, though toned down, had not actually been completely removed. Additionally, the added scenes gave more context to the story and provided a new take on the existing characters.


The compromise came in 1981 when Coppola again recut the two films to still be a chronological story but put back all of the cut scenes while removing many of the additional pieces of footage. This shorter, but truer view of the story was more of a hit and was released on VHS. Audiences seemed more interested in this version as they could watch it at their own pace (it was no longer divided into four parts), and with the knowledge that the only real difference was the timeline.

Is The Godfather Saga Better?

The Godfather Saga has the distinction of being one of the few made-for-TV projects that was re-edited by the original director and editor. Often, these projects are left to network execs who do their own butchering and completely derail the project, creating a stitched-together monster where once stood an absolute beauty.


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The fact that some people decry the saga as a director butchering his own masterpiece, there will always be people who scream for originals. The same can be said for the original Star Wars trilogy which George Lucas has recut and re-edited so many times that it is nearly impossible to find the original. However, Coppola not only took charge of his own work but compromised just enough to fund his next big project.

The Godfather Saga is an acquired taste. For those who want to see the best version, it would be wise to find the 1981 version. However, the concept is daring, and it makes one question whether the films would have found even a modicum of success had they originally been filmed in this manner.




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