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Fri 17 September 2021

Mic Wright on Boris Johnson’s obsession with The Godfather, and why director Francis Ford Coppola decried him for bringing “the beloved United Kingdom to ruin”

It’s one of the most famous instructions in movie history: “Leave the gun – take the cannoli.”

The Godfather line was improvised by Richard S Castellano and serves as a button on the scene in which Clemenza (played by Castellano) and his associate Rocco kill the ‘rat’, Paulie, then dump their car – ensuring that the pastries requested by Clemenza’s wife are not left behind. 

Boris Johnson would always leave the gun and take the cannoli. That’s in part because of his Bunterish approach to food and proven self-interest but also because, when he was asked in a 2019 Daily Mail interview to name his favourite movie scene, he replied: “The Sergei Eisenstein tribute multiple retribution scene in The Godfather.” 

Johnson’s choice was freighted with meaning given the timing. He, like Michael Corleone in the movie, was on the cusp of ascending to the top job, having put pay to his rivals – not through a series of brutal executions, but the next most ruthless process known to humankind: a Conservative Party leadership contest. 

In the so-called ‘Baptism of Fire’ sequence in The Godfather, director Francis Ford Coppola cuts between Corleone becoming godfather to his sister’s child and a series of killings that are taking place to solidify his position as The Godfather. It’s a juxtaposition of faith exploited for earthly ends and a ruthless demonstration of power. 

Johnson choosing this sequence is appropriate in one sense. His political career is often about public performances concealing ugly business behind the scenes. And in his major campaigns – two successful runs for Mayor of London, the EU Referendum, and the 2019 General Election – he’s used articles of faith (‘£350 million for the NHS’; ‘Get Brexit Done’; and ‘Levelling-Up’) to paper over harsh political realities. 

Politicians often reference The Godfather because they mistakenly believe that ruthlessness is cool and see how often it is rewarded in their line of work. But Coppola was livid when he learned that Johnson had talked about his film. Reached by Tom Teodorczuk of Financial News, the director said: 

“As incompetent as I may be to offer an opinion on political matters, along with some embarrassment that The Godfather seems to be the favourite film of modern history’s most brutal figures, including Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and others, I feel badly that scenes in a gangster film might inspire any activity in the real world or provide encouragement to someone I see is about to bring the beloved United Kingdom to ruin.” 

But it’s not just Conservatives who have a taste for imagining themselves as ‘gangsters’. In the latest episode of his podcast, Tom Harris – a former Labour minister-turned-Telegraph columnist – references the comparison of Ed Miliband to Fredo, the hapless middle brother of the Corleone family who fails to protect his father Vito from assassins and is passed over in favour of Michael and ultimately betrays him.

Harris claimed that another former Scottish Labour MP, Michael McCann, responded to Ed Miliband’s election as Labour leader by ranting to him: “You know what we’ve done, don’t you? We’ve gone and elected Fredo.”

And Miliband thought all that heat over a bacon sandwich was bad. 

It appears that Harris sees himself as a Sonny (a leader that should have been) or perhaps a sharp operator such as Tom Hagen – the Corleone family fixer who was always destined to be an outsider. I think he’s more like a minor mobster telling tall tales in a dive bar, making much of his brief time in the world of the real made men; a quality shared by many current and former MPs who talk tough and act cowardly. 


A Political Obsession

Godfather references are popular among Conservatives and Labour alike because both parties consist of people who want their petty treacheries to have the operatic grandeur of Mario Puzo’s prose and Francis Ford Coppola’s film-making.

But, while many reports have erroneously claimed that Boris Johnson has said that The Godfather is his favourite film, that’s not true. 

The movie that the Prime Minister actually claimed as his favourite in the same Daily Mail interview was Dodgeball – the 2004 Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller comedy about a schlubby guy putting together a ragtag band of misfits to save his gym from closure by a huge corporation. Given that Johnson has repeatedly said, however, that his favourite film character is the mayor in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws – because “he kept the beaches open” – there’s every chance he actually relates to Stiller’s cruel corporate gym boss Goodman rather than the protagonist Pete.

In July, when Labour Leader Keir Starmer had a good week at Prime Minister’s Questions in the aftermath of Matt Hancock’s resignation, the Evening Standard’s then political editor Joe Murphy compared Johnson to The Godfather‘s Sollozzo – the hood lured into a meeting with Michael Corleone then slain with a hidden revolver. 

Murphy wrote that Johnson had been “lured into a trap and pumped full of bullets by Keir Starmer, the dude he had complacently written off as harmless”. It was a typical hyperbolic Westminster hack analogy for two men lobbing laboured gags at each other for the benefit of their own backbenchers and a small audience of political obsessives. 

And there’s British politics’ obsession with The Godfather summed up: Starmer’s words had no immediate consequence for the Prime Minister. That PMQs clash is already forgotten by most people, including some who were in the room. But, to make these encounters seem important, the politicians who conduct them and the journalists who observe them need dramatic analogies.

The Godfather is perfect because it depicts a world where words really have consequences and violence is more than a metaphor. It lets weak men – and it’s always men – pretend to be tough.

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