“What the studios want now is ‘risk-free’ films, but with any sort of art, you have to take risks. Not taking risks in art is like not having sex and then expecting there to be children.”
Francis Ford Coppola was a man who took risks with his films. Some of these paid off in a huge way. The Godfather and its sequels basically defined the crime genre and became hugely successful, but there was no precedent for this success. Later, Coppola would take greater risks, some successes and some not. He produced some of the greatest films of all time, but some of his other works were huge flops. He even said of himself, “I probably have genius, but no talent.” That’s alright, because when he hits, he hits hard.
Coppola specializes in modern-day epics. He covers professional criminals and soldiers with the grandiosity and respect of great heroes of myth and history, and his epic heroes want to change the world around them even against all odds. He’s also able to present complex and even questionable morality in a way that feels real and natural, keeping these grandiose characters firmly grounded in reality. It’s an amazing mix, and his hit films maintain this balance expertly.
The Godfather (1972)
Considered by many to be the greatest film of all time, this movie needs no introduction. It put Coppola on the map and firmly established his unique style of telling a big story with all the right details. The cinematic world had never seen a story of criminals with such depth and humanity as this one. Has there ever been a better crime film? Well, there might be one…
The Godfather: Part II (1974)
The original was such a hit that work began on the sequel almost immediately after the first one was wrapped up, and Coppola somehow told a story that was both more epic and more human than the original. The film is, by Coppola’s own admission, a bit sloppy at times, but it just works so well that any faults are easy to overlook. This is one of the rare cases of a sequel being just as good (some say better) than the original.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
After the colossal success of The Godfather and its sequel, Coppola set his sights even higher and made what I consider the most ambitious war film of all time. In his words, this film wasn’t about Vietnam—it was Vietnam. This film presents not only the brutality of war, but also its absurdity and extremely questionable morality. While not quite as accessible as other great war films, this is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant.
Coppola of course wrote and directed The Godfather: Part III, though not with the same success as the first two installments. He also wrote and directed 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Oddly enough, Coppola wrote and directed the old Disney video-ride featuring Michael Jackson, Captain EO. Can you imagine how that conversation went? “Hey, we need someone to direct this extended Michael Jackson music video. How about the guy that made The Godfather?”
He also served as producer for several of his daughter’s films, including Marie Antoinette and the brilliant Lost in Translation.