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(Credit: Zoetrope)

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Six definitive films: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Francis Ford Coppola

@Russellisation

“I think it’s better to be overly ambitious and fail than to be unambitious and succeed in a mundane way. I have been very fortunate. I failed upward in my life!” – Francis Ford Coppola 

A restless pioneer of New Hollywood filmmaking, Francis Ford Coppola is responsible for some of the greatest films of the 1970s, and of all time, including The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now, and The Conversation. So grand was the director’s ambition, that he created his own production company to fund his epic visions. American Zoetrope would house the productions of many Coppola productions including Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Tetro, and Apocalypse Now, the latter of which would infamously almost cause the company’s collapse. 

A truly prolific filmmaker at the close of the 20th century, Coppola has since been unable to replicate his past success, now in semi-retirement. Strange horror fantasies such as 2011’s Twixt, as well as independent productions like 2016’s Distant Visions mark his previous decade of filmmaking, with passion-project Megalopolis having long been scheduled for ‘the future’.

Whatever the future holds for this iconic American filmmaker, his legacy in cinema will forever be remembered for his tumultuous journey into Vietnam, and the epic chronicle of the Corleone family, among many other classics. 

Let’s take a look into the most definitive films from his vast career…

Francis Ford Coppola 6’s definitive films:

The Godfather (1972)

Prior to his breakout success in the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola engaged with various genres, styles and avenues of filmmaking, from sexploitation comedy in Tonight for Sure, to new wave experiments such as You’re a Big Boy Now. Though, his first significant break would come in 1970 where he would receive an Academy Award for his work on the original screenplay for Patton. 

This would precede perhaps his greatest ever success, 1972’s The Godfather, a groundbreaking feat of filmmaking that would forever elevate the gangster crime-drama. The story follows Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), an ageing mafia boss who must transfer power to his reluctant son Michael (Al Pacino).

With help from a transformative performance from Brando, The Godfather is remembered as one of cinema’s monolithic greats, painting the picture of a mafia family where ancestral blood comes before any material gain.

The Conversation (1974)

Arriving like a thunderous raid, The Godfather Part II continued the tale of the Corleone, using entwining storylines to garner further Oscar success in the form of best director, and best picture wins. Whilst the sequel to the classic gangster film may be arguably better than its iconic predecessor, it was Coppola’s smaller, meticulous character study of Harry Caul in The Conversation that would add another dimension to the director’s filmmaking style. 

Also heaped with international praise, The Conversation would win the Grand Prix at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival for its enigmatic depiction of a paranoid surveillance expert who discovers the couple he is spying on could be in grave danger. Released post-watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon for similar wire-tapping, Coppola’s film was highly relevant extracting a certain truth of paranoid conspiracy that was felt following the scandal.

Influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, The Conversation’s slow and plodding narrative perfectly built tension, and again showed a certain skill of Coppola as he built a complicated, gripping tale where physically little happens. 

Apocalypse Now (1979) 

Arguably both Francis Ford Coppola’s and lead actor Marlon Brando’s final ever masterpiece, Apocalypse Now would bookend the directors remarkable run of form; filmmaking which would later define the 1970s. 

“My film is not about Vietnam…it is Vietnam,” Coppola rather ominously said of his idiosyncratic war film following the attempted assassination of a renegade Special Forces Colonel who sees himself as a God. Shockingly convincing, Brando brings his own bizarre eccentricities to his portrayal of the army colonel lost in the twisting jungles of Vietnam. 

Infamous for its countless behind-the-scenes struggles, Coppola’s film is one of the most cinematic and spectacular war films ever made, an insane ode to chaos, trickling through the fabric of the film and onto the set itself.

Koyaanisqatsi (1982, Godfrey Reggio)

Whilst Godfrey Reggio’s groundbreaking Koyaanisqatsi doesn’t have Coppola’s directorial jurisdiction, his mere fingerprints as a producer on the film meant that the film saw a wider audience and flourished as a result. Coppola’s hand in the film’s production was in many ways an ode to the directors own experimental spirit, with an avid enthusiasm for new filmic perspectives Koyaanisqatsi would provide documentary filmmaking with a brand new voice, and radical new style. 

Whilst working on post-production at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio in 1981, the two directors met, and after Coppola saw the film he agreed to put his name to it, stating it was “important for people to see”. The film itself is an exploration of the human landscape, navigating through the desert and into the populated city, where pioneering editing and camera techniques combine with Phillip Glass‘ orchestral score to create a symphony of life. This is a tale of a successful director providing an amplified voice to an aspiring, revolutionary filmmaker.

Rumble Fish (1983)

Success in the 1970s was followed by a more steady 1980s, marked with filmic ventures that were a little more scaled-back. Rumble Fish was the second of two films Coppola adapted from S.E. Hinton novels, the first of which, The Outsiders, would introduce a whole new generation of actors to Hollywood, including Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez and Patrick Swayze.

Included in both these adaptations was the rising star, Matt Dillon, starring here as Rusty James, a street thug who struggles to live up to his legendary older brother’s reputation. Shot in beautiful monochrome, Coppola’s brutal coming-of-age adaptation is experimental in form, expressing unusual camera techniques to tell its tragic story. Bleeding with young existential heartache, Coppola described that the rebellious film was “An art film for kids… or Camus for kids”.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

From the outside, it would appear that by the 1990s, Coppola’s creativity was deflated after decades of cinematic success. His duo of S.E. Hinton adaptations was followed by drab comedy-dramas, Peggy Sue Got Married and Tucker: The Man and His Dream, as well as a final addition to The Godfather trilogy that also failed to capture the spectacle of its predecessors. 

Coppola’s eccentric take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula is arguably his final film of artistic integrity, a visually impactful pop-fiction of Bram Stoker’s 19th-century gothic novel. Starring Gary Oldman as the titular star, the film is a strange, fantastical interpretation of the novel, one which sensationalises the story and creates caricatures of the leading roles. Troubled may it be, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is certainly the vision of Francis Ford Coppola, an experimental voice in Hollywood who strived for the ambitious and extraordinary. Look no further than this aberrant adaptation.

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