How WWII Hero Michael Corleone Defied His Family to Enlist in the Marines in ‘The Godfather’

Al Pacino plays Capt. Michael Corleone, USMC in "The Godfather." (Paramount Pictures)

Vito Corleone had high hopes for his youngest son. He sent Michael to Dartmouth College and planned for the kid to get out of the family business and become Sen. Corleone or Gov. Corleone. When World War II came, Vito had the connections to keep Michael out of the war.

Unfortunately, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Vito's birthday and Michael dropped out of school to enlist in the Marine Corps. Michael Corleone rose to the rank of captain, fought in the Pacific and was awarded the Silver Star and the Navy Cross.

Michael's military career is the backbone of "The Godfather" and its two movie sequels. His decision to enlist shows his father that Michael can make his own choices. The young Corleone acquired his steely will as he fought to survive combat against the Japanese.

As "The Godfather" opens, Michael has returned from the war and his father still has hopes that his son will be able to have a life outside of organized crime. Unfortunately, rival families attempt to assassinate Don Corleone, and it's Michael who has the brains and guts to get revenge on the perpetrators.

Neither his oldest brother Sonny or middle brother Fredo have the temperament to protect the family in a crisis. At the end of the movie, Michael sits with his father in the garden, where Vito shares his regrets. "I refused to be a fool dancing on the string held by all those bigshots," Vito says. "I don't apologize. That's my life, but I thought that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the string."

2022 was the 50th anniversary of "The Godfather." In celebration of the milestone, Paramount completed a new restoration of the movie trilogy and released all three in 4K UHD as both a disc box set and in digital format. The movies have never looked better, and fans should consider the upgrade, even if they're already bought them on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray. This one should be the definitive release.

Director Francis Ford Coppola circles back to Michael's military service in a flashback scene at the end of 1974's "The Godfather Part II." As an exhausted Michael sits alone in his Lake Tahoe compound. Sonny has been killed by Barzini's men, Michael had Carlo whacked for setting up Sonny and he's just had Fredo killed for betraying the family.

In that dark moment, Michael remembers happier times -- his father's surprise birthday party on Dec. 7, 1941. He's at a table with his brothers Sonny and Fredo, adopted brother Tom Hagen, and future brother-in-law Carlo Rizzi.

Here's the scene, slightly edited:

Sonny: "Say, what do you think of the nerve of them japs, them slanty-eyed bastards, eh? Dropping bombs on our own backyard on Pop's birthday here."

Caporegime Salvatore Tessio: "I heard 30,000 men enlisted this morning."

Sonny: "A bunch of saps. … They're saps because they risk their lives for strangers." `

Michael: "That's Pop talking. … They risk their lives for their country."

Sonny: "Your country ain't your blood, you remember that."

Michael: "I don't feel that way."

Sonny: "Well, if you feel that way, why don't you just quit college and join the Army?"

Michael: "I did. I enlisted in the Marines."

Tom Hagen: "Mike, why didn't you come to us? Pop had to pull a lot of strings to get your deferment."

Michael: "I didn't ask for it. I didn't ask for a deferment. I didn't want it."

Sonny gets up to punch his little brother but sits back down.

Sonny: "Nice. Break your father's heart on his birthday."

Tom: "Mike, you gotta understand. Your father has plans for you. There are many times he and I have talked about your future."

Michael: "You talked to my father about my future."

Tom: "Mikey, he has high hopes for you."

Michael: "I have my own plans for my future."

Sonny: "What? Did you go to college to get stupid?"

Michael sits alone in the dining room as the rest of the family rushes to the door to greet their father. He smokes a cigarette as he figures out how to break the news.

It's the scene that ties the movies together and gets at the heart of their theme. What's the opening line of "The Godfather"? The mortician Bonasera approaches the Godfather for help and begins, "I believe in America."

So does Michael Corleone, but this Marine has a more nuanced understanding of citizenship and power than anyone else in his family. It's both his strategic advantage and his lifelong curse.

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