Ten years before The Godfather forged a mythic image of the Sicilian Men of Honor society, an Italian film exposed that same secret society’s inner workings, styles and rituals with a bit more clarity than Francis Ford Coppola was able to muster. After all, Coppola was working primarily off the testimony of a low-level snitch, so even though much of his film rings true for Italian-Americans, he hit some false notes.
One thing about The Godfather: you never hear the words “men of honor” even once, although you will find them sprinkled throughout Alberto Lattuada’s little-known masterpiece. The film is available for free streaming on Amazon Prime right now and I strongly suggest you check it out asap. But please don’t look up the wiki info first as it will only spoil the plot. The less you know, the more you will enjoy this film.
I have to wonder if it was based on an actual event. “Anatomy of a Hit” would be a good subtitle. It’s a black comedy and will keep you laughing, but there’s a reality lurking underneath this comedy. The psychological underpinnings of the Sicilian brotherhood of death and how that society operates are actually quite realistically revealed.
The Sicilian men-of-honor society was transplanted along with the waves of Italian immigrants that entered North America from the 1840s and on, but it did not surface in the public eye until a New Orleans chief-of-police whispered “the dagoes did it” as his dying words on the streets of New Orleans in 1890.
An initial wave of anti-Italian mafia paranoia took place around the turn of the century. Meanwhile, working quietly behind the scenes, this brotherhood of death established a national Commission of Peace, which held authority over replacing family heads, as well as a general assembly of several hundred made members, which was to be held once every four or five years. They also created an initiation ritual involving a human skull pierced by a stiletto upon which drops of fresh blood were dripped during the ceremony. This was all in place by the early 1900s and continues today in some form, although the skull was soon replaced by burning paper saints. The Commission was created to prevent outbreaks of violence like New Orleans, where two Sicilian clans started fighting over who was going to unload fruit from Italian-American owned ships, resulting in the death of that police chief.
The society was criminal from the start. In fact, counterfeiting provided the initial wave of capital, the profits of which could be invested to grow legitimate businesses, like shipping and olive oil. Another source of income was murder. Since this society was, in fact, a brotherhood of death, and drew its initial power from its masters of the art of the stiletto, these talents were for sale, although revolvers and sawed-off shotguns soon replaced the knife as the preferred instrument of death.
There were clans everywhere, but the main families were in New York, New Orleans and Ohio-Pennsylvania. If a member committed a murder in one town, the Commission just moved that person to another town. There was very little coordination of police activity and no central FBI. In other words, for many years, the Sicilians were more organized than the police.
In 1969, Joe Valachi became the first member to break omerta and live to tell about it. Joe was a trigger-man, a street level enforcer with zero access to the inner core of the society, so the picture he painted was the image held by most people at his level. Valachi was not Sicilian, by the way, which made him an outsider of sorts.
Don Peppino’s son was the first insider to talk, and a slew of books followed, until, eventually, the great Don wrote his own story, a masterpiece and the best mob book ever written, although it gets little credit today. The book is called Man of Honor by Joseph Bonanno.
Francis Ford Coppola got The Godfather project dropped in his lap shortly after Valachi testified, which is what got the whole mafia ball rolling again. So many people were amazed such a powerful secret society could remain hidden for such a long time. The first post-Valachi mob films bombed, including one with Kurt Douglas. None of these films conveyed the spirit of Italian life. Coppola blew that spirit into his film with the scenes involving major family ceremonies.
The march of history is actually orchestrated through alliances and conflicts between secret societies like the men of honor. The social register operates much the same way as the Sicilian brotherhood, in that it has chapters located throughout the major cities, all of which hold regular ceremonies. The listings contain 30,000 names and each member belongs to numerous societies and clubs, all of which are notated in brief initials hard for outsiders to even decipher. This is the old money society and it would be absurd and naive to think they would not have their own secret brotherhoods of death embedded into their cultures, well hidden somewhere way in the background. In fact, Skull & Bones at Yale might be a primary example. The social register is aligned primarily with the House of Lords, so there’s another brotherhood of death to bring into the circle of influence. And lately, the Mossad has emerged as the deadliest and most effective of all the brotherhoods of death, so there’s another secret society to bring into our current circle of influence. All these secret societies are cooking up profit schemes all the time because the only real rule is big dog eats first.
If you understand the men of honor, you begin to understand how similar brotherhoods exist in other levels of society. These societies are interacting over who gets the most skim, while making every effort to insure their children inherit the worlds they command.
I love Coppola’s film, which had a powerful psychic influence around the world, as big as Wizard of Oz or Star Wars. In fact, it almost instantly rearranged the mob leader from evil to good in the initial wedding scene, a masterpiece of pro-mafia propaganda, in which the Godfather declines to do murder for hire, but he will beat up this guy up for free if you promise to be his friend, call him Godfather, and kiss his ring like he’s the Pope.
Coppola was a real outsider however, working almost exclusively with Valachi’s testimony and Mario Puzo’s potboiler novel. He mixed up details from all the five families and turned Valachi into Salvatore Tessio, a caporegime leader of his own clan, who commits an honorable suicide to preserve his family’s standing with the Commission. That, my friends, is not the real story of Valachi, a thug who spent the remaining short years of his life in prison fighting for his life and even killing an innocent dude he suspected of being his assassin. Yes, the real story is not so glamorous as Coppola painted it.
Someday maybe we’ll get the real story on other brotherhoods of death, all of which carry a terrible psychic toll on members. Arranging murder is a toxic endeavor that pollutes the soul. Although our culture glamorizes these societies, they never show the PTSD, or the spiritual degeneration. It only took 120 years before someone inside the men-of-honor society revealed their hidden structure. Since Skull & Bones began around the same time, I wonder how long we’ll have to wait for a whistleblower to emerge from within that culture?