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The Godfather and Saving Private Ryan: Filmmaking of the Century

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It is often said that “The Godfather” is an ironic interpretation of the American Dream. The film is an obvious reflection of the immigrant experience in America. The film focuses on one of the darker aspects of this experience. Throughout history, there have been many immigrant communities that have had a phase of prominent organized crime. As an Italian-American, this was not a concern for Coppola; he understood this was a small piece of a much larger picture. By the early 1970s, the chapter of European immigration in American history was closing. Italian-Americans were proud of integrating into the middle-class society. The film was a validation of Italian-American history rather than an illustration of crime amongst Italians. 

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Around 1880, Italians began arriving in New York in massive numbers. When they arrived, they faced severe hostility from the Irish, who resented their working for less money and longer hours. Although both nationalities shared the same faith, Italians were viewed as superstitious because of their devotion to saints, which was expressed in the staging of decorative feasts. Irish pastors attempted to provide accommodation to the growing Italian communities by offering them services in the basement of their churches, but due to the Italians’ great sense of pride, they refused. This impasse led to Italians beginning to build churches to serve their own communities and other new immigrant groups, not only in New York, but in other major cities. In his article, Italian Immigration John Powell explains how Italian immigrants created their own communities due to the discrimination they faced after their arrival in America. “Generally poor, undereducated, and Roman Catholic, Italians suffered severely from nativism. As a result, they created social enclaves, Little Italy’s in most major American cities, fostering a love of the old country and traditional ways of life, though these neighborhoods were seldom inhabited solely by Italians. In part, this was because Italians immigrants frequently moved. In the first generation, they lived in the worst slums of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco. By the turn of the century, Italian families had often moved to more spacious working-class neighborhoods” (Powell). Rather than fighting to live within the communities that discriminated against them, Italian immigrants decided to form their own communities.

A large anti-immigration sentiment was growing, that posited the idea that Italians and other eastern Europeans were morally unfit to be Americans. Obviously, this was the same argument that was made about the Irish. Eventually, this viewpoint would result in a 1924 federal immigration law that blocked Italians as well as southern and eastern Europeans from coming to America.

Of course, forty years prior to the influx of Italian immigrants into America, the first wave of Irish immigrants began to arrive in America, trying to escape the potato famine in Ireland. They arrived with the same prejudice and hatred that the Italians would face. The history of violence and gang confrontation is present in other films, including Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. The history presented in the film is of course dramatized and made to appear exciting for the entertainment of audiences, but also because the book it is based on, Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury, is itself violent and scandalous. In the text, American History Goes to the Movies Bryan Rommel-Ruiz explains how Scorsese depicted the gang culture in the ghettos of New York. “Gangs are often viewed as the violent refuge of thugs fighting to control street turf, battling to uphold masculine codes of honor. Scorsese’s film, however, provokes the viewer to consider gangs in a more sociological context. In his movie gangs serve their traditional roles for marginalized men in ghettoized communities; but they are also institutions of extralegal justice, a street manifestation of the legal system for marginalized peoples” (Rommel Ruiz). However, the film also still offers a useful window into other important themes. Including, the rivalry between volunteer fire companies fighting in the streets as a house burns to the ground is not beyond the realm of possibility. The setting of Gangs of New York also provides a look into the foul conditions of immigrant ghettos in the mid-nineteenth century. The film’s interpretation of the Five Points, an infamous district of Irish immigrant poverty on the Lower East Side of New York, is quite powerful.

American cities were unprepared for the massive growth of the population that came with the arrival of immigrants, therefore the housing that was needed to support the number of immigrants were improvised or poorly put together. Also, old structures were controlled by crooked landlords who planned to take as much money as they could from their tenants. For example, Brewery’s in the Five Points were converted into housing structures to accommodate the growing population of working-class Irish immigrants.

The Irish immigrants who arrived in America throughout the years of the potato were some of the first big waves of poor refugees. They faced anti-Catholic prejudice and held to their religious faith and morals which was an essential part of their identity. Over time, the Irish would establish unions and become a powerful force in the NYPD and take control of politics in major cities.

Saving Private Ryan is one of the most iconic World War II films ever made. The depiction of the Normandy invasion drew critical praise when the film was released in 1998, leaving many viewers in awe. The film had major success at the Oscars, winning in five categories, and was honored at several other award ceremonies. The film is viewed as a fitting tribute to the American troops who landed in France and thereby opened the second front in Europe, an event that resulted in the lead to the final defeat of Nazi Germany. The film is set during the Allied invasion of Normandy, during the end of the second world war. It is about a squad of rangers sent on a mission to rescue a soldier deep behind enemy lines.

The first twenty minutes of the film provides an unbelievable perception into the horrors of the landings on Omaha Beach, which took place on June 6th, 1944, the main characters battle through almost seemingly impossible conditions while being pinned down on the beach. What is the most striking about the opening scene is the realistic depiction of the landing, as it doesn’t present the soldiers as superheroes, but rather as disorientated, confused and scared men who are simply doing all they can to survive. Upon its release, the film had a huge impact on the American public. The film was able to close the gap between a generation of World War II veterans, and a generation that is fortunate enough to never experience the horror of war. The film provided a small glimpse of the immense terror and destruction that was unleashed on D-Day, but it also brought back some distressing memories for the veterans who had experienced the actual war some fifty-four years ago.

The films also released major amounts of stress and depression amongst veterans. The possible reason for this outreach for help amongst veterans was because of the different views the public had about the veterans of the Second World War as compared to the veterans of wars that came afterward, such as the Gulf War or the Vietnam War. When they returned home the veterans of World War II were observed as heroes who weren’t allowed to show emotion. Also, the generations that fought in World War II were children of the Great Depression, raised to rarely complain and to suppress their feelings, and simply deal with their own emotion. many surviving veterans of the Second World War were invited to attend the initial screenings. Thus, the release of emotion that occurred during the initial release, was both natural and terrible. Audiences across the country now had a new view on the war and were able to see first-hand the trauma caused by war.

The 1979 film, Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola illustrated not only the horror, but the absurdity, and the ineffectiveness of war, but most importantly it portrayed the damaging psychological effects of war. The characters’ fall into figurative and literal darkness and madness, the film suggests that war indulges the darkest and bewildered parts of human nature.

When director Coppola and his sound editor Walter Murch added the Richard Wagner classical piece Ride of the Valkyries to the film, it was undeniably the moment the piece became engraved in the collective minds of filmgoers. Wagner’s epic and soaring piece work well alongside the immersive intentions of the film. Richard Wagner’s composition was both victorious and menacing and set the scene for the devastating and vicious destruction of a North Vietnamese village.

The historical context of Wagner’s piece is also worth mentioning, as well. Flight of the Valkyries appears in the third act of Wagner’s 1870 opera Die Walküre. “The opera revolves around Valkyries, mythic figures in Norse mythology who take half of the warriors slain in battle to Valhalla, a celebratory hall of the afterlife where they will prepare for the final apocalyptic battle, Ragnarök” (Wilson). This is one of the many examples of how the musical power of Wagner’s’ piece could be reimagined as an ironic commentary of the violence that took place during the Vietnam War. The repetitive upward build of the piece emphasizes the constant heightening intensity of the assault on Charlie’s Point, in Apocalypse Now and the advancing assault moving deeper into the jungle and the continuous rise of casualties during the war.

To take another example from this very same scene, there’s a moment where the music drops away entirely. During the village attack scene, we are provided with images of villagers looking anxiously at the sky, only and only the silent sounds of the jungle along the villagers lived reality. What possibly begins to inspire their fear isn’t the music, it’s the almost unnoticeable Earth rumbling beneath their feet as the choppers approach from ten miles out. Then we hear the approach of the choppers as the music begins to fade in.

The two films are an examination on two very different wars fought by two very different generations. However, both films do well at presenting the horrors of wartime and depict the soldiers as who they truly are. Humans, rather than heroes who are required to show little emotion or fear of facing the task of possibly acing their own deaths. While the story of Saving Private Ryan is based on fiction, the actions and events that are taking place around the main characters are probably the closest moviegoers will get to seeing what it was like for the veterans of World War Two. Apocalypse Now displays the horrors of war and the psychological and emotional struggle of the Vietnam veterans, but rather the plot takes place in a form of fantasy rather than displaying the film through a non-fictional story.

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