When Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo began to write their classic Godfather movies, based on Mario Puzo’s pop novel, did they have the Plantagenet Brothers, Edward, George and Richard in mind as the prototypes of Sonny, Fredo and Michael Corleone? Whether they did or not, the parallels among the characters and their historical counterparts are quite interesting and in several instances, astonishing.
In Godfather 2, considered the masterwork of the trilogy, we meet the handsome, elegant Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro), father of the trio, as a young Italian immigrant who learns to survive the mean streets of Manhattan in the early 20th Century. After many trials and error, he succeeds by eventually seizing authority from the corrupt, wealthy power-brokers and extortionists of the poor, exemplified by Don Fanucci (Gastone Muschin), and proceeds to build a power base of his own from which he can exercise both justice and punishment as well as accumulate land and riches. That this land is in the Borough of Queens, New York and not Lincolnshire or Yorkshire does not lessen the fact that it bears some similarity to the life of Richard of York in his ongoing quest to seize power from the naïve Henry the Sixth and his corrupt court. Where they differ, aside from location and time, is that Don Corleone did not have to contend with the scary Margaret of Anjou. In almost all cases in these movies, with perhaps the exception of Kay played by Diane Keaton, the women take a backseat to the men of the Costa Nostra.
Where the parallels get much stronger is the introduction of the three brothers in the first Godfather film. The youngest, the quiet, scholarly Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is back from fighting in the Pacific and hopes to graduate from college and go into politics. A bit of an outsider within his family (“That’s my family, Kay, not me”), he is nonetheless keeping a silent watch on the frenzied actions of his landsman. In this, we see an inkling of the young Duke of Gloucester, a soldier who may originally have been slated to become a priest, who had an active interest in law, literature and music but one who had no logical chance of rising within the royal family. But through twists of amazing fate and fortune’s ever-spinning wheel, as most Ricardians know: just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in!
Brother Sonny Corleone (James Caan), the oldest of the clan, is the golden boy of the family, the apple of his father’s eye (Marlon Brando) and the successor to his father’s dynasty. But Sonny has a problem not unlike his Plantagenet model, King Edward IV: he’s a slothful womanizer with several mistresses, one of whom, Lucy, is so tempting that Don Corleone scolds his son for becoming soft and decadent and not looking after business. Sonny’s insistence on bringing narcotics into his crime syndicate – a quick way to make a buck – surely has a parallel to Edward’s Treaty of Picquigny, which easily brought thousands upon thousands of crowns into the English treasury and was much disdained by the straight-laced Richard. We also know that Edward came to value Richard’s loyalty and work ethic in carrying out his orders as Constable of England, head of the Admiralty and Lord of the North and so, too, does Sonny esteem his youngest brother when Michael volunteers to kill his father’s would-be murderers after Corleone Pére becomes the victim of an assassination attempt. While we cannot compare Richard’s actions to that of the murderous Michael, we do know that Richard remained a loyal family man and admirer of his brother Edward – perhaps until he was set upon by a brace of Woodvilles.
Was there ever a character more like George, Duke of Clarence than Fredo played by the late, great John Casale?
This is the weak middle brother who drunkenly screams “I’m your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over!” when confronted about his bad behavior. He’s the overlooked, jealous and distrusted son and sibling, constantly protected by Michael but continually betraying his family in wrong-headed alliances with Las Vegas and Havana mobsters culminating in a plot to assassinate his younger brother who is now head of the family. How similar to the unstable and drunken Clarence joining with the Earl of Warwick in rebellion and again implicated in various plots to overthrow the king and seize the crown. Just as Clarence was hauled off to the Tower by Edward IV, Fredo is consigned to purdah at Michael’s Lake Tahoe secluded retreat. At this point, the parallel diverges in that we know that Richard was adamantly opposed to his brother being executed while Michael Corleone delivers Fredo’s death warrant with a kiss. (“It was you, Fredo, it was you.”) Yet both brothers, historical and fictional, deeply regret the loss of a childhood playmate and blood relative.
Once Fredo is executed and Sonny and Vito are long dead, an embittered Michael stands alone as the head of his family. He is left with fractured friendships and interests which must somehow be glued together in order to keep “the business” going. Michael becomes involved with shady Italian politicians and Vatican financiers as Richard welcomed the overtures of the dicey Duke of Buckingham. Both have unhappy outcomes that do not bode well for the future of either man. Lastly, there is an eerie similarity between Richard and Michael when his daughter, Mary, played by Sofia Coppola in Godfather 3, is brutally murdered on the steps of the Palermo Opera House by a bullet meant for her father. In his guilt and frenzy, we see Michael silently scream in what must surely echo Richard’s own agony when confronted with his own son’s unexpected death. Michael cannot be comforted by his ex-wife and I suspect Queen Anne also could not help her grieving husband.
Truly, a medieval bloodfest filmed by Gordon Willis in somber, handsome shades of ruby red, cobalt blue and black that might easily hint at a touch of Yorkist murrey and blue.
Oh, and could this be Richard and his lawyer William Catsby? Played by Robert Duvall.