Did The Godfather seriously kill a real horse for his iconic scene?
THE URBAN LEGEND OF THE FILM: Francis Ford Coppola had a real horse killed for the famous scene with the horse’s head in The Godfather.
Today marks the official 50th anniversary of the launch of the hit film, The GodfatherFrancis Ford Coppola’s brilliant adaptation of Mario Puzo’s best-selling novel about the Corleone crime family in the 1940s. As I pointed out last time I captioned The Godfather, Paramount Pictures caused a lot of heartbreak to Coppola during the film’s production, though they generally calmed down as he produced more and more great images, making it clear to the studio that he had made the right choice for the director.
However, one of the things the studio never really liked about Coppola (even though it seems clear from the final product that he should have) is how Coppola strove to achieve some sense of verisimilitude in the film. Coppola didn’t just want the movie to be set in the past, he really wanted it to feel like it was in the past. He’s got it all down to the smallest detail, like the fact that most of the cars seen in the movie have wooden bumpers, because metal bumpers weren’t used in WWII (because the metal was needed for the war effort) and in the years after the war (when The Godfather is filmed) people obviously didn’t rush to get replacement bumpers right away, so most cars still had wooden bumpers, just like in the movie.
This sense of verisimilitude has become temporarily controversial when it comes to the film’s iconic sequence where Don Corleone’s men serve a movie mogul’s horse in bed!
WAS IT REALLY A HORSE HEAD IN THE GODFATHER’S BED SCENE?
One of the major changes from Puzo’s novel is that Coppola really reduced the misadventures of singer Johnny Fontane, Don Vito Corleone’s godson. Puzo based Fontane on Frank Sinatra, specifically rumors that Sinatra’s mob relations were what led him to land a juicy role in From Here to Eternity which was originally cast with actor Eli Wallach ( amusingly enough, Wallach later appeared as one of the main protagonists in The Godfather Part III) which ultimately won Sinatra the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
In The Godfather, Fontane really wants a role in an upcoming war movie that seems destined to win an Oscar, a role that seemed like it was written for him. The problem is that Jack Woltz, the head of the movie studio, hates Fontane because he slept with one of Woltz’s mistresses and is intentionally kicking Fontane out of the role out of spite, especially since he knows that the role is really perfect for him and would probably 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 can’t refuse”). Woltz shows Hagen around Hollywood and shows him his prized racehorse, Khartoum. However, he refuses to help Fontane, even resorting to belligerently shouting at Hagen, “Now get the hell out of here! And if that goombah tries hard stuff, you tell him I’m not a party leader! Yes, I heard that story. Hagen returns to New York and lets Don Corleone know the kind of response Woltz gave them.
The next day, Woltz wakes up to find Khartoum’s bloodied head in bed with him. He then “shockingly” changes his mind about Fontane and the role in the film is his, and he, in fact, wins Fontane an Oscar.
As for the horse’s head, it was actually a real horse’s head in the scene. However, the horsehead’s origins were far more mundane than some of the film’s critics believed at the time.
WHO KILLED THE HORSE FOR THE SCENE IN THE GODFATHER?
Coppola explained how the horse’s head was obtained on the DVD commentary for The Godfather, as later detailed by the Los Angeles Times:
Coppola also reports that he received impassioned letters from animal activists regarding the horse’s head found in Hollywood producer Jack Woltz’s (John Marley) bed. They thought the filmmakers killed a horse for the scene. It was actually a real head, Coppola says, but it came from a slaughterhouse where horses were destroyed for dog food. He says a member of production visited the company, picked out a horse that looked like Woltz’s prized thoroughbred, and asked that when the time came, the head be sent to the filmmakers. Shortly after, the company sent them a box with their heads wrapped in ice.
So even though it was a real horse head, it wasn’t killed off for the movie itself, which must be a little comforting for animal rights groups, although probably not THAT much comforting , because it is still a dead horse. At least it wasn’t one of those horse deaths that actually happened in some movies this led to the implementation of the now famous “No animals were harmed in the making of this film” disclaimer, as the filmmakers didn’t even really take that sort of thing into consideration when they worked with animals in movies.
The legend is…
Thanks to reader Don R. for writing to ask if this legend was true and thanks to Francis Ford Coppola for the information (as reported by the Los Angeles Times).
Be sure to check my archive of Movie Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of cinema.
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