"You like race horses? I love 'em. Beautiful, expensive Racehorses. You are looking at six hundred thousand on four hoofs...I bet even Russina Czars never paid that kind of dough for a single horse." Jack Woltz (John Marley) in The Godfather, screenplay by Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola
If you’ve never seen The Godfather there is a major hole in your film history knowledge. Write a note to screenwrtier/ director Francis Ford Coppola begging for forgiveness, buy a bottle of his wine (unless you’re under 21), and watch that film before you read this post. (After all, it is #2 on the AFI’s 100 years 100 Movies list.)
The horse’s head scene is not only the most memorable, the most visceral scene in The Godfather trilogy, it is one of the most memorable in film history. It’s also the one scene that, to me, technically makes the least sense. I’ve watched The Godfather many times and there is no doubt that the scene works every time.
My problem is a logical one. How did they get the horses head in the bed without waking the Hollywood studio head who was sleeping in it? Sure we could jump through some hoops and say he was drugged and all and anybody ruthless enough to do such a heinous act could figure out how to pull it off.
Still, it just seems like a flaw. Maybe I’m the only one who this bugs. And this is not to take anything from one of the greatest films ever made. I have the deepest respect for Coppola as a writer and a director. There is no screenwriter I have written about on this blog that I’d rather sit down and have a meal with than Coppola. (Okay, maybe Billy Wilder, but that’s kind of hard these days.)
If anything, it shows the genius of Coppola as a writer and director to change what was originally written by Mario Puzo in the book so that it would have the maximum impact on the audiences. Here’s how Coppola explains the scene on The Godfather DVD commentary:
“Interesting about the horse’s head scene— that was at the time a very, very famous scene in the book, and the way it’s described in the book Woltz wakes up and he looks and the horse’s head is there on the bedpost. And I just felt it would it be more horrible not to just have the horse there, but that he feels something wet in his bed and he turns down the sheets and he sees blood. And at first he thinks, ‘my god it could be me, I’ve been stabled or something.’ And as he pulls the sheet he sees the horse’s head right under the covers, so it’s quite different than in the book in the film—it’s maybe more effective, I’m not sure. I think that moment of doubt, that maybe it was his own wound bleeding maybe contributed to the horror.”
It’s a scene that lasts only one minute*, but that is embedded on audiences for a lifetime. Yes, the horse’s head on the bedpost does make more sense and is more plausible, but would have been far less effective. (Remember Hitchcock thought those that spoke in terms of plausibility were boring.)
The lesson here is the drama of the reveal trumps logic.
*And for the directors out there, the horse’s head scene consists mostly of one long take of dolly shot, followed by three quick shots reaction shots after the revel of the horse’s head. Filmmaking at it’s best.