Gangsters as Tragic Heroes in American Film - Film Essay Example

Gangsters as Tragic Heroes in American Film



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Various films with themes that touches on gangster lives are mostly met with mixed reactions by the audience. The main characters of such movies on which the themes of the films are created may sometimes be elements of both despise and admiration. Through their actions which no doubts are mostly tragic, the main actors to such films are “tragic heroes”. In respect to this knowledge, this paper will analyze two films, Godfather part I and Scarface, both shot in the US and whose major themes are about gangster lives. In order to fulfill the intended purpose the analysis will seek to portray the main characters of the films as tragic heroes. This will be achieved through the description of what they do that warrant them the tragic heroes name and how the audience perceive them to be again based on what they do.

The Films Analysis


In the first film, Godfather, the main character, Michael Corleone is introduced as the last born of wealthy and influential Italian family that lives in the US. [A Look Inside, (2001)] Don Vito Michaels father and who is also known as “Godfather” by associates is the head of the Corleone Mafia family. From the introduction Michael is an ex-marine hero coming from the World War II is depicted as a nice person who reassures his girl friend Kay that he is planning to marry her soon and help to create a good name different from his father’s criminal history. Michael tragic heroism begins when the “The Turk” Sollozzo who has got the backing of the Tattaglia family, a rival mafia family to Corleone family approaches Godfather to request for a hand in financing a  political and legal protection in a syndicate to import and distribute heroin in the US. Godfather declines fearing for his political life and that of his family, he had planned for his youngest son, Michael to become a senator or governor one day. [Francis Ford Coppola, (2001)] However his eldest son Sonny wants to go for the idea but the Godfather would not listen; this prompts Godfather to send one of his button men, Luca Brasi to infiltrate Sollozzo’s organization. Brasi is killed by Sollozzo and the Tattaglia family. Godfather is also shot several times in an assassination bid, however, he survives and taken to the hospital. This marks the beginning of Michael’s tragic heroism, earlier considered to be a good man by the mafia fraternity for not involving himself in mob business visits his father at the hospital to find him without any guards, he feels so bad that when the police arrives led by captain McCluskey he engages them in fight but he ends up being broken his jaw. Sonny kills Bruno Tattaglia that prompts Sollozzo to arrange for a meeting with Corleones that McCluskey was also to attend as Sollozzo’s body guard. Although the killing of cops is out of the dictates of the mafia way of operation, Michael contends that McCluskey case is justified since he is too corrupt and therefore volunteers to kill both of them, this amuses Sonny and other members of the family, Michael responds by saying that the move will not be personal, it will be business. He wittily manages to smuggle a revolver into the meeting place that he uses coolly kill both McCluskey, this makes to flee the US and goes back home in Sicily, where there he lives under the protection Don Tommasino, an old family friend. Michael meets a beautiful girl, Appollonia Vitelli who is killed by a car bomb that was targeted to kill Michael. [A Look Inside, (2001)]

Back in the US, after Sonny is killed by Carlo Rizzi’s men don Corleone arranges to meet with all the five Mafia families and also agrees to Sollozzo’s deal of financing the heroin racket. Michael returns from Sicily and reunites with his former girlfriend, Kay and promises to marry her and turn the family legitimate now that he is poised for the leadership of the Corleone’s family with Godfather aging, Sonny dead and the other brother too weak to lead the family. Michael reshuffles the family security team and also plans to relocate to Nevada in future. His father however, warns to be wary of any meeting called by the five mafia families, when his father dies of a heart attack a meeting is organized by one of his security men, Tessio but Michael is too smart to attend. [Francis Ford Coppola, (2001)]

He afterwards arranges for a series of murders to occur simultaneously when he fully assumed the godfather powers over the Corleone family, all the other four mafia families Dons families are all executed in the onslaught. He also arranges foe the killing of Tessio, upon surrendering, Tessio confesses that he respected Michael but his betraying him was just business. He also kills Carlo, the husband to his sister Connie, upon questing by his wife Kay and Sister Connie he vehemently denies. When the film ends Michael is congratulated by his security team of Clemenza and others who refers to him as “Don Corleone.” [A Look Inside, (2001)]

Michael’s tragic heroism is highly admired by the audience, since his mode of operation was always “justified”, as he only struck when it was necessary. His first murder of McCluskey and Sollozzo was necessary since Sollozzo had arranged for the assassination of Don Corleone and the killing of the family button man, Luca Brasi. The killing of the other four mafia family Dons was equally necessary as they were also planning to assassinate him, again he had promised Kay to set the family on a legitimate course a thing he could not manage with the Dons of the families alive. The killing of Carlo Rizzi, Connie’s husband was also justified because it was Carlo who arranged for the murder of Sonny and also he mistreated Connie when he was pregnant.

The end of the film justifies Michael’s gangster tragic heroism; he is crowned the bona fide leadership of the family. [Francis Ford Coppola, (2001)]


This film stars Tony Montana as the main character who also turns out to be a tragic hero. After president Fidel Castro opens the gates at the Mariel harbor in Cuba allowing thousands of Cubans to immigrate to the Florida Boatlifts. An approximately 25, 000 out of the 125,000 Cubans who crosses over to US have criminal records. [Scarface Movie Reviews, Pictures – Rotten, n.d] Tony Montana and his best friend Manny Ribera are placed under limbo at the Freedomtown since they no green cards. At the camp they are offered a deal by a drug dealer, frank Lopez to kill a former Cuban security agent, Emilio Rebenga in exchange of green cards,  Tony does not take a second thought, he literally stamps and kills Rebenga during a riot and they get the green cards. This marks the strong beginning of Tony’s tragic heroism; in the US he gets involved with drug dealers that made him develop a passion for killing people. One such case was when he and Manny were given an assignment to buy cocaine from a Mexican drug baron “Hector the Toad”, the deals turns awry when hector plays the smart boy by killing one of Tony’s men using a chainsaw, Tony then kills Hector and run away with the cocaine which he takes to Frank, this results into sealing a strong bond the two. Some days later Frank sends Tony and Omar to Bolivia to negotiate for prospect of supplying drugs to the US with a plantation owner, Alejadro. While there Tony goes beyond the deals limits by negotiating important part of the deal that frank was supposed to handle, they both send Omar back but assassinates him.

Back home frank threatens Tony for killing Omar he also warns Tony that Alejadro is a backstabber, frank then plans to have Tony killed through a police officer Bernstein and also sends his hit men to kill him but Tony is too smart he evades their dragnet. Tony with his friend Manny begins hunting Frank and Bernstein, they successfully them then he looks in the sky which is inscribed with the phrase “The world is yours”, Tony takes franks girlfriend Elvira. [Arnold, Garry, 1983]

He marries Elvira and inherits the Franks business empire, he start making huge chunks of money and buys a huge mansion that has CCTV system and luxurious paraphernalia. He also makes Manny his second-in-command in charge of guarding his mansion and the warehouses. However, excessive consumption of cocaine takes toll on his life married life; he becomes more paranoid and suspicious for those around him, while Elvira becomes bored and distant. He is sort of obsessed with over protecting his sister Gina. Manny and his sister Gina starts dating behind his back too scared for what might happen if he ever realized. He is also arrested for tax evasion case by a local money launder who operates as an under cover cop. His woes are compounded by Elvira’s leaving and Tony begins behaving like a madman calling himself the “societal bad guy”. When he is called by Alejadro calls him to Bolivia and arranges to fix the undercover cop who arrested him so that he can continue with the case if only Tony will agree to killing a Bolivian anti-drug dealing activist, Tony reluctantly agrees because his area of operation has been killing drug dealers and the like but now he is poised to kill a non-drug dealer. He is accompanied by Alejadro’s hit man, Alberto to New York. They plant a bomb in the activist’s car, however, Tony aborts the mission when he realizes that the activist is accompanied by his wife and children in the car, he reasons that he can kill innocent children or their mother he instructs Alberto to immobilize the bomb but Alberto does not listen therefore Tony shoots him dead hence adding to the list of his drug dealers dead victims. [Arnold, Garry, 1983]

Tony is also accused by his mother of corrupting his sister Gina, who also turns out to be sleeping with Tony’s friend Manny. When Tony finds them he shoots dead Manny. Meanwhile Alejandro Sosa threatens to kill Tony for not going on with their plan, he sends his men to kill Tony. Alejandro’s hit men launch an assault in Tony’s mansion killing many of his guards and his sister Gina. Tony fights them off with his M 16 riffle and grenade launcher, he manages to kill a dozen of the men before being felled by Alejandro’s top hit man known as the “skull,” he falls from the balcony into a pool with a tablet inscribed, “The world is yours.” [Arnold, Garry, 1983]

Tony’s tragic gangster heroism is subject to great envy and despise by the audience. The audience would loathe his stabbing of the former Cuban security agent, Rebenga while they were in Freedomtown, the killing of Frank and Bernstein, the killing of Omar, the killing of Alberto Alejadro’s hit man, the killing of Manny his best friend, and also the killing of a dozen of Alejadro’s hit men when they came to ambush him, his tragic heroism also occasioned the killing of his sister Gina. However, many would envy him for the principle he maintained for not killing innocent people, for instance his death was occasioned by his stance not to go ahead with Alejandro’s plan to kill the anti-drug selling activist in New York.




Work Cited:


The Godfather DVD Collection documentary A Look Inside, (2001)
The Godfather DVD Commentary Featuring Francis Ford Coppola, (2001)
Arnold, Garry (December 9, 1983). “Al Picano, the new gangster, Saddled With Old Clichés,” Washington Post.
Scarface Movie Reviews, Pictures – Rotten, available at;, accessed on December 21, 2008







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