Few objects in Hollywood history can have caused as much controversy as the horse’s head in The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola often recalls that he received far more complaints about it than about any of the brutal professional murders in his film. When Al Martino’s middle-aged crooner, Johnny Fontane, is refused a part in the film that promises to revive his career, he appeals to his godfather, Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone. Corleone despatches his consigliere, Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen, to talk to movie mogul Jack Woltz, who has personal reasons for denying Fontane the role.
Woltz (John Marley) invites Hagen to dinner, shows him around his impressive mansion and takes him to meet Khartoum, the beautiful thoroughbred racehorse he has recently bought for $600,000 and for which he has erected a state-of-the-art stable. Woltz is adamant about his decision, announcing that ‘Johnny Fontane will never get that movie!’ but adding that he is willing to grant Corleone another request, if he has one. Hagen politely leaves, having explained that ‘the Don never asks a second favour when he has been refused a first.’ The next morning, when Woltz wakes up, his bed is sodden with blood. Throwing back the covers, he sees Khartoum’s severed head. Fontane gets the movie.
What makes the scene so shocking is that the horse’s head looks so real. And that is because it is. It was bought from a dog food factory and painted to match the head of the horse that played the living Khartoum. The slaughter of Khartoum sends a simple, dreadful message from Don Corleone to one who has dared defy him: ‘My power is absolute. My evil is unlimited. My will is law.’ What fascinates us about the Mafia in movies is not that they live outside our laws – all kinds of criminals and anarchists do that – but that they live so rigidly within laws of their own. When one of those laws is broken, the consequences are both awful and inevitable. And, in the entire history of gangster movies, nothing expresses this more arrestingly than Khartoum’s bloody head.