MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Francis Ford Coppola had an actual horse killed for the famous scene with the horse head in The Godfather.
Today marks the official 50th anniversary of the debut of the hit film, The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant adaptation of Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel about the Corleone crime family during the 1940s. As I pointed out the last time that I did a legend on The Godfather, Paramount Pictures gave Coppola a lot of grief during the production of the film, even though they generally calmed down as he produced more and more great footage, making it clear to the studio that it had made the right choice for the director.
However, one of the things that the studio never quite appreciated about Coppola (even though it seems clear from the final product that it should have) is the way that Coppola strove for a certain sense of verisimilitude in the film. Coppola didn’t just want to have the film set in the past, he wanted it to truly feel like it WAS in the past. He got everything right down to the minute details, like the fact that most of the cars seen in the film have wooden bumpers, because metal bumpers were not used during World War II (as metal was needed for the war effort) and in the years after the war (when The Godfather is set), people obviously didn’t rush to get replacement bumpers right away, so most of the cars still had wooden bumpers, just like in the film.
That sense of verisimilitude became temporarily controversial when it came to the iconic sequence in the film where Don Corleone’s men serve a movie magnate’s horse in his bed!
WAS THAT REALLY AN ACTUAL HORSE’S HEAD IN THE BED SCENE IN THE GODFATHER?
One of the major changes from Puzo’s novel is that Coppola really cut down on the misadventures of singer Johnny Fontane, the godson to Don Vito Corleone. Puzo based Fontane on Frank Sinatra, specifically the rumors that Sinatra’s mob connections were what led to him getting a juicy role in From Here to Eternity that had initially been cast with actor Eli Wallach (amusingly enough, Wallach later appeared as one of the main protagonists in The Godfather Part III) that ultimately won Sinatra an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
In The Godfather, Fontane really wants a role in an upcoming war film that seems destined to win an Oscar, a role that felt like it was written for him. The issue is that Jack Woltz, the head of the film studio, hates Fontane because he slept with one of Woltz’s mistresses and so is intentionally keeping Fontane from the role out of spite, especially since he knows that the role really is perfect for him and would likely make him a movie star. Don Corleone sends his new consigliere, Tom Hagen, to negotiate with Woltz (Don Corleone specifically tells Tom the iconic line, “Make him an offer he ca n’t refuse”). Woltz shows Hagen around Hollywood and shows him his prized racehorse, Khartoum. However, he refuses to help out Fontane, even resorting to belligerently shouting at Hagen, “Now you get the hell outta here! And if that goombah tries any rough stuff, you tell him I ain’t no band leader! Yeah, I heard that story.” Hagen returns to New York and lets Don Corleone know what kind of response Woltz gave them.
The next day, Woltz wakes up to find Khartoum’s bloody head in bed with him. He “shockingly” then changes his mind on Fontane and his role in the film is his, and it does, in fact, win Fontane an Academy Award.
As to the horse’s head, it was, in fact, a real horse’s head in the scene. However, the origins of the horse’s head were a lot more mundane than some of the critics of the film believed at the time.
WHO KILLED THE HORSE FOR THE SCENE IN THE GODFATHER?
Coppola explained how the horse’s head was procured on the DVD commentary for The Godfather, as later detailed by the Los Angeles Times:
Coppola also reports that he has received heated letters from animal activists regarding the horse’s head that is found in the bed of Hollywood producer Jack Woltz (John Marley). They thought the filmmakers had killed a horse for the scene. It was in fact a real head, Coppola says, but it came from a slaughterhouse where horses were being destroyed for dog food. He says a member of the production went to the company, chose a horse that resembled Woltz’s prized thoroughbred and asked that when the time came, the head be sent to the filmmakers. Shortly thereafter, the company sent them a box with the head wrapped in ice.
So while it WAS a real horse’s head, it was not actually killed for the film itself, which must be SOME comfort to animal rights groups out there, although probably not THAT much comfort, since it is still a dead horse. At least it wasn’t one of those horse deaths that actually occurred in some films that led to the implementation of the now-famous “No animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture” disclaimer on films, as filmmakers used to not even really take that sort of thing into consideration while working with animals in films.
The legend is…
Thanks to reader Don R. for writing in to ask whether this legend was true and thanks to Francis Ford Coppola for the information (as relayed by the Los Angeles Times).
Be sure to check out my archive of Movie Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of film.
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