The Godfather trilogy at once proves and disproves the conventional wisdom that a sequel can never equal the original in a series of films. In the case of The Godfather Part III, the dictum holds. Though a good movie, The Godfather Part III suffers in comparison to its predecessors for the same reasons that sequels generally fail: surprise is harder to come by because once successful tropes have grown stale. The Godfather Part II, on the other hand, is in every way the equal of The Godfather. Like its predecessor, it is one of the great movies of the 1970s, indeed of all cinematic history. Ranking the two films is more a matter of taste than artistic merit. Like War and Peace and Anna Karenina, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are each unique and appealing in their own way.
This fact is all the more remarkable considering that, unlike a trilogy such as The Lord of the Rings, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II were not filmed or even conceived of all at once. The Godfather is a complete movie, and had Coppola ended his project there, no one would have felt it was incomplete. The ability to generate a second film as fresh and exciting as The Godfather is, therefore, the singular achievement of the trilogy. This is possible only because Part II is a sequel of an unusual sort. Rather than a continuation of the first film’s plot, it is a new take on the themes of the first film and can be classified as belonging to a different genre. The Godfather may be classified as an epic, a multigenerational family saga told in an almost mythical way. Part II, on the other hand, does contain elements of epic, but feels more like a psychological drama, narrating the making of one don (young Vito) and the personal undoing of another (Michael). Some might even call Part II a tragedy. Certainly, this is the element of the film that Part III takes up, in the murder of Fredo and the disintegration of Michael and Kay's marriage. As a whole, the trilogy feels more like Michael's tragedy than the Corleone family epic. But regardless of how we decide to classify the Godfather films, the fact remains that the first two employ radically different means of storytelling. The principle difference between the two films is in their narrative structures, which are achieved through different modes of editing.