Watching the Godfather: What do Americans Consider Obscene?

I caught Coppola’s classic at a hotel last night, and the way it was edited for television audiences reveals something fascinating about American sensibilities.

The scene in which Sonny Corleone is executed was presented uncut. Played by James Caan, Sonny is trapped in his car at a toll booth by another vehicle full of gunmen, who riddle him with machine gun bullets, as do other assassins who had been hiding in the booth. Gasping and covered in blood, he staggers out of his car to be hit with a sustained volley of machine gun fire that makes his body convulse repeatedly. He then falls dead in a bloody heap, at which point one of the killers walks up to his body and unloads the rest of his ammo into him point blank. The killer then kicks Sonny’s corpse in the head for good measure. Wholesome all-American fun; wish my kids could’ve seen it.

In contrast, another scene was edited for television. Michael and Apollonia Corleone’s wedding night in Sicily is extraordinarily sweet as played sensitively and without dialogue by Al Pacino and Simonetta Stefanelli. Michael and his young bride are alone in the bedroom. She is clearly a virgin, both excited and at the same time frightened. Michael doesn’t rush her. He waits for her to step toward him, and then cradles her face and kisses her gently on the forehead and then — the censors get out their scissors. In the original movie, but not on television, Apollonia’s breasts are briefly visible before the couple embrace and passionately kiss. Sure they just got married in a Catholic Church, sure they love each other, sure the woman is portrayed as a human being and not an object but hey, the sight of breasts might scar the innocent so out it goes.

I have seen the Godfather on television in Spain and in Sweden and in both countries the wedding night scene was uncut, whereas the scene of Sonny’s execution was edited to be shorter and less graphically violent. Apparently people in those countries have a different sense than Americans about what is shocking and obscene and what is not.

The other comparison point that comes to mind is what I have learned from working with combat veterans. Sadly enough, many psychiatric hospitals have former soldiers in them who saw something like what happened to Sonny Corleone and never got over it. In contrast, I have never had a patient tell me “Doc, I’ve got PTSD. Ya gotta hospitalize me — I saw a pair of breasts and I just can’t get them out of my mind”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

21 thoughts on “Watching the Godfather: What do Americans Consider Obscene?”

  1. It’s because Americans (real ones, anyway) deeply believe in the Culture of Life.

  2. Endlessly fascinating how Puritanical, yet grossly violent our society is. When I lived in Europe I had to re-cast my mindset and realized that breasts are just breasts, and violence isn’t just violence. Raw capitalism is violent as well, and works best in violent societies, IMHO.

  3. Ugh… it’s so sickening. I highly recommend the documentary This Movie Is Not Yet Rated for those who have not yet seen it. Pretty frightening.

    A few weeks back I was flipping through the cable guide and noticed the movie Saw on Telemundo. I had heard about the film and thus avoided it. But I was interested in what they might be showing at 1pm in the afternoon. From what I can remember, a woman had some type of metal device on her head, and was being threatened by a disembodied voice. She then began screaming as it became clear that something horrific was about to happen to her. I quickly shut it off.

    A few nights ago, I flipped past what I think was an episode of CSI in which a man was standing over someone, the chest of whom he was repeatedly plunging a knife into. The body slipped to the floor.

    However, I think they’re now allowed to say the word “bullshit” on cable.

    Oh – shameless promotion: I wrote about an interesting experience I had recently with censored material at my public library.

  4. Could it be that soaking an electorate in violent media content renders that electorate more passive and less willing to take to the streets to demand redress of grievances?

  5. I noticed a similar issue when watching a TV broadcast of Apocalypse Now. The severed heads in front of Colonel Kurtz’s compound were presented in all of their glory, but the breasts of the Playboy Bunnies brought in to entertain the troops were tastefully blurred.

  6. I’ve been seeing this for years now. Over on Ted Turner’s network, I’ve seen “damn” bleeped while the term “nigger” went unchecked a couple scenes later. BBC America is even stranger. Apparently, the English are less concerned with people seeing “mammalian protruberances” on telly. Here in First World America, such offensive physical features become strangely blurred. If you watched the first episode of “The Inbetweeners” on BBC America, you quickly discovered it was unwatchable because, apparently, the English have a far greater appreciation for the term “fuck” than we will ever know. Essentially, the dialogue in the edited American version was:

    Student 1: hey, did you ____ that ____, ____?
    Student 2: ____ yes, that ____ _____ ____ ____ my ____ foot.
    Student 1: ____!!!!

    Granted, our courts are slowly coming around to the notion that a man poounding his thumb with a hammer may say “fuck” in a contaxt unrelated to sex and lasciviousness, and you can see the results by watching FX after 10 pm, but we still have such a long way to go in determining what is offensive and what is acceptable for adults to see and hear.

    Unrelated but similar: watching movies on Comedy Channel is one of the funniest things you can see on that channel. Their editing shears are straight out of 1953. My favorite story of watching a movie on Comedy Channel involved Cheech and Chong’s “Up in Smoke.” All instances of drug use were removed. All of them. If you have never witnessed such a thing, and are unable to imagine it, picture “Gone With The Wind” with all of the scenes featuring Clark gable and/or Vivien Leigh removed.

  7. In a strange reversal, if you search for “The Count Censored” on the web, you will find a video of The Count on Sesame Street singing “I Love To Count” with every instance of the word “count” bleeped. It turns an innocent children’s song into a depraved ode to debauchery.

  8. This is the Supreme Court’s fault, pure and simple. Some of them are really quite twisted.

  9. Another eye-opener is to watch the Family Channel’s (I think it’s ABCFamily now) bowdlerized version of Blazing Saddles. Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) is allowed to rape Justice’s statue in his office, but the campfire fart scene is edited to be burps instead…

  10. I think it might come down to “this will be awkward if I’m watching it with my parents/children.”
    Violence may be hateful and damaging, but it doesn’t create awkward silences like a sex scene. Awkwardness hurts ratings

  11. The same thing was done to the movie The Fugitive when it is on TV. ALL the flashbacks to Helen Kimble being beaten to death are shown in complete, gory detail, but every curse word the Marshals or anyone else utters is dubbed into some inoffensive word.

  12. “In contrast, I have never had a patient tell me “Doc, I’ve got PTSD. Ya gotta hospitalize me — I saw a pair of breasts and I just can’t get them out of my mind”.”

    You obviously haven’t been treating a lot of televangelists or republican legislators.

  13. Betsy: Guilty as charged. Looking at television when I travel reinforces my decision not to have one at home.

  14. Betsy and Keith – I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the entire medium! Especially in the age of DVRs, there’s a lot of quality stuff out there that is near as good, if not better than film. You just have find it amongst the 99% of garbage.

  15. Eli: Agreed, there are good things on television if one knows where to look. I recently watched the first season of Deadwood on DVD and it was excellent, as is the BBC series “Zen” which I have seen on airplanes. The decision not to own a TV though is separate from that — to have a TV is to turn it on automatically and surf through acres of crap, to watch a zillion commercials and not to be in control of what one consumes. Getting a DVD of a good show from the library eliminates all these problems, so I will sometimes do that even though I wouldn’t go back to owning a television.

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