BBC 2024-03-14 01:01:39

Freed Israeli hostage demands world do more for those still held in Gaza

An Israeli hostage freed from Gaza three months ago has accused the world of forgetting those still held by Hamas and urged the Israeli government to do whatever it takes to bring them home.

Itay Regev, 19, told the BBC he was held in “horrific” conditions by “very, very vicious” captors and he did not think he would get out alive.

He was kidnapped from the Nova music festival with his sister and a friend.

Talks on a ceasefire and hostage exchange have been ongoing for weeks.

But as yet there is no deal, with reported sticking points including Hamas’s demand for a permanent ceasefire and Israeli troop withdrawal from Gaza, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called “delusional”.

However, Itay – who was released along with his sister, Maya, and 103 other hostages in return for some 240 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails during a brief truce in November – is clear about what needs to happen.

“I think we should do anything we possibly can to get them out of there, whatever the cost… It’s people’s lives,” he said, speaking to the BBC in London in his first UK interview.

“I’m sure if anyone had their child kidnapped, they wouldn’t really care about what price needed to be paid. We need to return the hostages at any cost.”

About 130 hostages, including Itay’s friend Omer Shem Tov, are still being held in Gaza. Israeli officials have said they believe about 30 of those still in Gaza are dead.

Itay is in London to raise their plight with British MPs – he said he was there to “scream their cries from Gaza” – and wants the international community to do more to secure their release.

“The hostages have been there for five months now. The answer is unequivocally, no they’re not doing enough,” he said.

“For five months not to see the sunlight and you don’t know what’s happening with your family, for five months to be in horrific conditions and hungry… They have to be taken out of there as quickly as possible. They have the horrible feeling of not knowing what their fate will be from one second to the next.”

Describing his 54 days of captivity, Itay said he had to come to terms with the fact that he might be killed.

“We were very, very hungry. I didn’t have a shower for 54 days. My captors were very, very vicious. They didn’t care. I had wounds in my legs, big holes in my legs.

“And you lived there in a horrific sense of fear. Every second that you live with this feeling is a terrible feeling, that you don’t really know if you’re going to wake up in the morning, or in a minute, if a missile is going to fall on you, if they’re going to come in with a Kalashnikov and start spraying us with bullets. The conditions are very, very difficult there.”

The war began when Hamas gunmen attacked southern Israel on 7 October, killing about 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages. More than 31,200 people have been killed in Gaza since then, the Hamas-run health ministry says.

During their early morning assault, Hamas attackers stormed the Nova music festival site near the Israel-Gaza perimeter fence.

More than 360 young partygoers were shot, beaten or burnt to death. Another 40 were taken hostage, including Itay.

He remembers hearing rockets and shooting as gunmen encircled the festival, followed by screaming.

“We went in a vehicle trying to escape the place and after five minutes, we encountered a van of terrorists spraying all the vehicles with bullets without any mercy. I got shot in my leg. My sister also got shot in the leg,” he said.

“And the terrorists got out of the van. They pulled me out, they tied my hands, and simply started driving into Gaza.”

He said he thought he would be murdered when he was taken, with Hamas fighters making throat-slitting gestures at him.

“I saw my sister Maya injured and crying. Maya also that day said goodbye to me and told me if I come out of this alive, tell our parents that she loves them. This is a day I will never forget for the rest of my life.”

Initially, he was taken to a house with a tunnel entrance inside and then, he believes, to a hospital.

“We entered Gaza and the terrorists started shouting and screaming and celebrating. It was like a big party. They brought us into the house and in the middle of that house there was a shaft. They made us go down into it.”

He said he was taken to a hospital where a “very, very anxious” doctor and several Hamas fighters were present. The doctor took the bullet from his leg without any anaesthetic or painkillers, he said.

“They put the forceps into my leg and they pulled out the bullet without anaesthetics. They told me to be quiet because if I wasn’t quiet they’ll kill me. In all that time there was more abuse, slaps to the face, spitting.”

He was separated from Maya, who was also given medical treatment. Her dangling foot was re-attached in surgery, but sideways, at an unnatural angle.

But they still managed to communicate. Maya’s request to see her brother was refused by her captors, but they passed on a note from her. Itay wrote back and they communicated in this way throughout their ordeal.

Maya, who was unable to walk when she was released, is now undergoing extensive rehabilitation on her leg.

Itay, who turned 19 last week, is happy to have his freedom but struggles when others like his friend Omer are still held hostage there.

“Why is Omer still there and I’m here? Sometimes I feel bad about it. I would simply do anything to bring him back,” he said.

“I was there with him and I know exactly how he is feeling and I want to shout his cry on his behalf because he can’t do it himself. He’s helpless.”

Gaza war: UNRWA says Rafah aid centre hit by Israeli forces

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees says a member of staff was killed and 22 others were injured when Israeli forces hit a food distribution centre in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip.

UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini said attacks on its facilities had “become commonplace in blatant disregard to international humanitarian law”.

The Hamas-run health ministry said an Israeli air strike killed five people.

The Israeli military said it killed a Hamas commander in a “precise strike”.

It identified him as Mohammed Abu Hasna and alleged that he had been a “combat support operative” in Hamas’s military wing in the Rafah area.

A man with that name was on a list of five fatalities given by health officials.

Rafah is crammed with an estimated 1.5 million Palestinians who are seeking shelter from Israel’s ground offensive elsewhere in Gaza.

The UN’s secretary general has warned that a threatened Israeli assault on the city could “plummet the people of Gaza into an even deeper circle of hell”.

The war in Gaza began when Hamas gunmen attacked southern Israel on 7 October, killing about 1,200 people and taking 253 others as hostages.

More than 31,200 people have been killed in Gaza in the military campaign that Israel launched in response, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

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Wednesday’s strike reportedly hit the eastern side of the UNRWA food distribution centre, which is in the eastern part of Rafah.

UNRWA spokeswoman Juliette Touma told the BBC that up to 60 people were believed to have been working at the facility, which also served as a warehouse for food and other critical supplies.

“We know that it is the Israeli forces who were responsible. Our teams were on site and they reported back the casualties,” she said.

Pictures of the aftermath showed a pool of blood in a courtyard outside a blue-and-white painted warehouse, and another pool just inside the doorway of the building, next to boxes of aid.

A 15-year-old boy and four men aged between 27 and 50, one of them called Mohamed Abu Hasna, were reported killed.

People were also filmed at a local hospital next to the bodies of five people, one of whom was a man wearing a blue UN tabard.

“It’s a UNRWA centre, expected to be secure,” UNRWA staff member Sami Abu Salim told the AFP news agency as he surveyed the damage.

“Some came to work to distribute aid to the people in need of food during the [Islamic] holy month of Ramadan. Suddenly, they were struck by two missiles.”

On Wednesday evening, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) put out a statement saying its aircraft had “precisely targeted and eliminated a terrorist in Hamas’s Operations Unit in the area of Rafah, Mohammed Abu Hasna”, without mentioning the UNRWA facility.

“He was also involved in taking control of humanitarian aid and distributing it to Hamas terrorists,” it added.

“Furthermore, [Abu] Hasna co-ordinated the activities of various Hamas units, as well as communicated with and activated Hamas field operatives. [Abu] Hasna was also responsible for an intelligence operations room which provides information on IDF positions for use in Hamas attacks.”

Mr Lazzarini said: “Today’s attack on one of the very few remaining UNRWA distribution centres in the Gaza Strip comes as food supplies are running out, hunger is widespread and, in some areas, turning into famine.”

“Every day, we share the co-ordinates of all our facilities across the Gaza Strip with parties to the conflict. The Israeli army received the co-ordinates including of this facility yesterday.”

UNRWA says at least 165 of its 13,000 employees in Gaza have been killed and more than 150 of its facilities have been hit since the start of the war.

More than 400 people have also been killed while seeking shelter under the UN flag, according to the agency.

Israel has accused UNRWA of supporting Hamas, which is proscribed as a terrorist organisation by Israel, the UK, US and other countries.

The agency has denied this, but in January it sacked nine of the 12 employees accused in an Israeli document of playing a part in the 7 October attacks.

The UN has yet to publish the results of an internal investigation launched as the US and other donors paused funding in response to the allegations.

US House passes bill that could ban TikTok nationwide

The US House of Representatives has passed a landmark bill that could see TikTok banned in America.

It would give the social media giant’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, six months to sell its controlling stake or the app would be blocked in the US.

While the bill passed overwhelmingly in a bipartisan vote, it still needs to clear the Senate and be signed by the president to become law.

Lawmakers have long held concerns about China’s influence over TikTok.

TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, founded in 2012.

The Beijing-based firm is registered in the Cayman Islands, and has offices across Europe and the US.

If the bill does manage to secure approval in the Senate, President Joe Biden has promised to sign it as soon as it lands on his desk, which could prompt a diplomatic spat with China.

ByteDance would have to seek approval from Chinese officials to complete a forced divestiture, which Beijing has vowed to oppose. Foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the move would “come back to bite the US”.

Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican who co-authored the bill, said the US could not “take the risk of having a dominant news platform in America controlled or owned by a company that is beholden to the Chinese Communist Party”.

Chinese companies are subject to a national security law requiring them to share data with the government on request.

TikTok has tried to reassure regulators that it has taken steps to ensure the data of its 150 million users in the US has been walled off from ByteDance employees in China.

TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew said the company was committed to keeping its data secure and the platform “free from outside manipulation”.

He warned the bill, if passed, would mean a ban on the app in the US, giving “more power to a handful of other social media companies” and putting thousands of American jobs at risk.

However, an investigation by the Wall Street Journal in January found the system was still “porous”, with data being unofficially shared between TikTok in the US and ByteDance in China. High-profile cases, including one incident where ByteDance employees in China accessed a journalist’s data to track down their sources, have stoked concerns.

Speaking ahead of the vote, Hakeem Jeffries – the top Democrat in the House – welcomed the bill, saying it would decrease “the likelihood that TikTok user data is exploited and privacy undermined by a hostile foreign adversary”.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the chamber would now review the legislation.

Its prospects in the upper chamber of Congress are unclear in the wake of Republican White House candidate Donald Trump speaking out against the bill.

The former president, who tried to ban the app during his term in office, changed his position after a recent meeting with Republican donor Jeff Yass, who reportedly owns a minor stake in ByteDance.

Mr Trump’s opposition was echoed by some House members on Wednesday. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, wrote on social media that the bill could allow Congress to force the sale of other corporations by claiming to be protecting US data from foreign adversaries.

Some Democrats are also opposed to a ban, fearing it could alienate the app’s youthful userbase as the party struggles to retain its hold over younger voters.

But the leaders of the Senate intelligence committee welcomed the House vote. Mark Warner, a Democrat, and Marco Rubio, a Republican, said they were determined to shepherd the bill through the chamber.

“We are united in our concern about the national security threat posed by TikTok – a platform with enormous power to influence and divide Americans whose parent company ByteDance remains legally required to do the bidding of the Chinese Communist Party,” they said in a statement.

After the vote, TikTok appeared to renew its push to have users lobby Congress, sending another notification urging them to contact their representatives. A similar move last week saw congressional offices bombarded with calls, a move that some staffers told the BBC had hardened opposition to the company.

Outside the White House on Wednesday a handful of supporters gathered to protest against the bill. Tiffany Yu, a young disability advocate from Los Angeles, told the BBC the platform was vital to her work.

“Fifteen years ago I only dreamed of reaching 30 to 40 people,” she says. Now, she has millions. Another demonstrator, Ophelia Nichols, highlighted the bill’s negative impact on US businesses.

“Shame on them, at the House,” she said.

Content creator Mona Swain, 23, said her earnings from the app were paying her mother’s mortgage and for her siblings’ college educations.

“To be put out of work at such a crazy time in my life and just in a lot of other creators’ lives, it’s really, really scary right now,” Ms Swain told Reuters news agency.

The Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesperson said: “Although the United States has never found evidence that TikTok threatens US national security, it has not stopped suppressing TikTok.

“This kind of bullying behaviour that cannot win in fair competition disrupts companies’ normal business activity, damages the confidence of international investors in the investment environment, and damages the normal international economic and trade order.”

But White House Spokesperson Karine Jean Pierre insisted that the bill merely sought to ensure that ownership of major technology platforms operating in the US “wouldn’t be in the hands of those who can exploit them”.

  • What is TikTok and why might the US ban it?
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  • China says TikTok ban would ‘come back to bite’ the US

Even if ByteDance does secure approval to sell its stake in TikTok, it is unclear whether any of its competitors have the funding to launch a bid for the platform. The company has previously valued the app at around $268bn. The price tag could scare off some investors.

But analysts told the BBC there would be plenty of potential buyers in the US. What deal might ultimately succeed is another question, given the cost and anti-monopoly concerns weighing on the tech sector.

“All the big social media companies would be interested but I think they would face a lot of anti-trust hurdles… There are other firms in the social media space that are smaller like Snapchat that would be interested but wouldn’t be able to afford it,” Emarketer analyst Jasmine Enberg told the BBC.

When the Trump administration ordered a sale in 2020, some of the biggest firms in the US emerged to explore bids, which then reportedly valued the firm at about $50bn.

Microsoft ultimately lost out to a team that included Walmart and software giant Oracle, led by Larry Ellison and Safra Catz, who had ties with the Trump administration. The deal fell apart amid legal challenges and the change-over to a new administration.

Today, TikTok’s reach and advertising revenue have increased significantly. Research firm Emarketer estimates TikTok will bring in about $8.66bn in ad revenue from the US this year, compared with less than $1bn in 2020.

The best places to see Kyoto’s cherry blossoms

Cultural expert Sara Aiko shares her picks for the best places to admire cherry blossoms in Kyoto, from the secluded Heian Shrine to Kiyomizu Temple at night.

Welcoming spring each year with vibrant shades of pink and white, sakura (cherry blossom) season is one of Japan’s most beloved natural attractions. The celebrated flower symbolises renewal and impermanence, as the ephemeral buds can only be viewed for a short period of time each year between March to early May. Blanketing mountains, lining rivers and park walkways, the delicate blossoms that burst across cities like Kyoto inspire hanami (flower viewing) parties for residents and tourists alike. We spoke to Sara Aiko, Condé Nast Travel Specialist and founder of boutique travel agency Curated Kyoto, to find out the best places to admire the sakura in Kyoto.

“What makes Kyoto so special is the way it expresses and celebrates beauty,” said Aiko, who has lived in Kyoto since 2010. “From the beautiful architecture to the elegant ceramic bowls and the intricate food presentation… everything is performed and presented in such a way that beauty can be felt naturally, rather than being forced. It’s a way of life.”

These expressions of beauty come alive during hanami season, and with over 2,000 temples and shrines and 17 Unesco World Heritage sites in the city, Kyoto offers particularly stunning backdrops to witness cherry blossoms.

“The cherry blossom trees, of course, steal the show with their stunning beauty,” said Aiko. “Whether capturing their splendour with your camera or simply immersing yourself in the moment by sitting under them along the north of the Kamo River, it’s an experience that’s truly special.”

Here are Sara Aiko’s five favourite places to admire the cherry blossoms in Kyoto.

To beat the massive hanami crowds, Aiko recommends heading to the gardens at the Heian Shrine or to Okazaki Canal (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

1. Best for beating the crowds: Heian Shrine

Springtime in Kyoto ushers in blossoming sakura – but also droves of people. While Aiko does recommend braving the crowds to visit top cherry blossom destinations like the Arashiyama district or the Philosopher’s Path, one of her personal favourite spots for a bit more solitude is the Heian Shrine. Built to commemorate Kyoto’s former standing as the capital of Japan, the late 19th-Century Shinto shrine is a must-see for its massive red torii gate and tranquil garden that surrounds a central lake.

“As you approach the shrine, you may not see any trees,” said Aiko. “But upon paying the entrance fee (¥600 [£3.15]) and entering the temple garden, visitors will be greeted by delightful sakura trees mingling with other flora. The garden, designed in the Japanese strolling style, invites guests to wander and savour the diverse sights and blossoms it offers.”

Aiko noted that visitors can also head to the nearby Okazaki Canal where cherry blossoms drape the river embankment’s southern side, or Okazaki Park, a former castle that explodes with blossoms along its pathways.

“If you’re strolling from the city centre, don’t miss a visit to Toriba Coffee for a superb takeaway brew,” said Aiko. “And for a delightful lunch spot, Tan, a beautiful Japanese restaurant, is just a 15-minute walk away.” Reservations are recommended.

Website: 97 Okazaki Nishitennocho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 606-8341, Japan
Phone: +81757610221
Instagram: @heianjingu_official

There are many beautiful places to have a hanami picnic in Kyoto, but Aiko favours the banks of the beautiful Kamo River (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

2. Best for enjoying a bento box or picnic: Kamo River

Hanami can be as simple as a leisurely stroll through a park, but traditionally, it involves a picnic party beneath the blooming trees when colleagues, friends or families gather with beers and sake to relish the beauty of the blossoms and celebrate the arrival of warmer weather after a long, isolating winter.

Aiko’s favourite hanami spot in Kyoto is the Kamo River. “Since Kyoto boasts few parks, the riverbank becomes a hub for various activities, including walking beloved pets, exercising, reading, and of course, enjoying hanami,” she said. “I recommend experiencing hanami anywhere along the stretch from the Sanjo Bridge to the Kitayama area (northern Kyoto), where the blossoms are most abundant. You’ll encounter enthusiastic hanami-goers of all ages, eagerly flocking to the river from early morning, armed with their signature blue picnic mats to claim a prime spot.”

She suggests bringing along a mat, a bottle of good wine or sake (yes, public drinking is legal in Japan), and a bento (lunch box) filled with delicious treats like grilled fish, fried pork cutlet, rice and pickled vegetables.

“You can find quality bento boxes at department stores such as Takashiyama and Isetan,” said Aiko. “Particularly on the basement floor. Additionally, Kyoto is renowned for its pastries and bread, so make sure to visit one of the city’s many bakeries for the perfect picnic treat – my personal favourite being Bakery Uki.”

The cherry blossoms are even more romantic under the moonlight, especially at Kiyomizu Temple (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

3. Best for admiring the cherry blossoms at night-time: Kiyomizu Temple

Experiencing sakura is a romantic experience in and of itself, but to experience cherry blossoms at their most magical, Aiko recommends seeing them when they’re lit up at night. Several temples in Kyoto host evening cherry blossom illumination events, including places of worship that extend their hours past 17:00 to welcome visitors, including Kiyomizu Temple.

“Among the 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites in Kyoto, Kiyomizu Temple stands out as one of the most popular destinations during this season,” said Aiko. “And for good reason. Its grounds are adorned with cherry trees, and the sight of Kyoto city in the background, set against the glow of the illuminated trees, is simply breath-taking.”

Aiko noted that Kiyomizu’s neighbouring temple, Kodaiji Temple, also hosts a cherry blossom illumination event, offering visitors the opportunity to explore two stunning locations in the area.

“And if you’re keen for a third spot,” she said. “Take a stroll down to Maruyama Park to marvel at the weeping cherry blossoms.”

Address: 1 Chome-294 Kiyomizu, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, 605-0862, Japan
Phone: +81755511234
Instagram: @feel_kiyomizudera

Cherry blossoms are beautiful at ground level, and even more so when viewed from high above at Kyoto’s Haradani-en Garden (Credit: Getty Images)

4. Best for a panoramic view of the sakura: Haradani-en Garden

A few years back, Aiko says she accidentally discovered what she calls a cherry blossom utopia, tucked away on a hill in the north of Kyoto. “Haradani-en Garden, a tad off from the city (but conveniently close to the Golden Temple), is a privately-owned garden that generously opens its gates for a limited time, specifically during the cherry blossom extravaganza in spring and the autumn leaf spectacle,” she said.

Aiko notes that the garden – open from 25 March to 14 April  – is so exclusive that many Kyoto residents don’t even know about it. “In this little-known sanctuary, you’ll find over 400 cherry trees of 20 different varieties sprawled across 13,000 sq m, showcasing an impressive palette of pink and white blossoms,” said Aiko. “Take your camera and note that the garden doesn’t allow tripods.”

Website: http://www.haradanien.comAddress: 36 Okitayamaharadaniinuicho, Kita Ward, Kyoto, 603-8487, Japan
Phone: +81754612924

Timing is everything when it comes to enjoying the cherry blossoms, but late bloomers can still find them at Sanzenin Temple just outside of Kyoto (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

5. Best for late blooming cherry blossoms: Sanzen-in Temple

While cherry blossom season in Kyoto typically spans from late March to the first two weeks of April, unpredictable shifts due to global warming – like 2023’s early bloom – are increasingly common. But Aiko says that if you missed the peak bloom in the city, don’t fret.

“A short journey northward may still offer breath-taking spring vistas,” she said. “Nestled in the ancient farming village of Ohara, Sanzen-in Temple‘s cherry blossoms tend to bloom slightly later due to the region’s cooler temperatures. Around early to mid-April, approximately 500 cherry blossoms adorn the temple grounds, creating a stunning scene. For accurate bloom forecasts, consider checking online or consulting your hotel concierge.”

Sanzen-in Temple holds historical significance as one of Kyoto’s five Monzeki Temples, where members of the Imperial family traditionally served as head priests. The Ohara area, home to the temple, is renowned as the city’s vegetable garden, supplying delicious local delicacies to restaurants and dining tables. To enhance your Ohara experience, Aiko recommends exploring eateries such as Somushi, a Korean-inspired restaurant, or Kulm, a charming café offering picturesque views.

Website: 540 Ohararaikoincho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, 601-1242, Japan
Phone: +81757442531
Instagram: @sanzenin_temple_official

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Why The Godfather was a ‘stark warning’ for the US

In these exclusive BBC Archive interviews, Francis Ford Coppola describes how with his masterpiece The Godfather he visualised the intricate web of influence, manipulation and violence that underpinned the world of organised crime – and showed how it reflected the US.

On 14 March 1972, the iconic crime epic The Godfather premiered in New York. With its haunting score, its subtle, evocative cinematography, its endlessly quotable dialogue and its powerhouse performances – which served to revive Marlon Brando’s career and make a star of a young Al Pacino – it is now widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time.

Accused of glamorising crime and the Mafia before it was even released, it went on to be seen by many as the definitive gangster film. But not by its director. “I’ve always felt The Godfather was really less about gangsters, than about power and powerful families, and the succession of power, and the Machiavellian way that real power works in the world,” Francis Ford Coppola told the BBC’s Barry Norman in 1991.

Coppola was just 29 years old when he was first offered the chance to direct an adaptation of Mario Puzo’s bestselling 1969 novel. The story centred on a fictional New York Mafia family in the post-World War Two years, led by patriarch Don Vito Corleone (the eponymous Godfather of the title), as they try to ensure their survival in the brutal and treacherous world of organised crime. When the Don is betrayed, his youngest son Michael, who had hoped for a life away from the Mob, gets pulled into the family business, as a war between the different crime families breaks out and they fight for control.

WATCH: ‘The Godfather was really less about gangsters than about power’

Coppola initially did not warm to the book. He wasn’t much interested in the Mafia, and when he first read it, he was put off by some of its more lurid aspects.

The film has become an abiding cultural touchstone that can be seen through many different lenses

“To me originally, and anyone who remembers the original Godfather book, it had a lot of sleazy aspects to it, which of course were cut out for the movie, and I didn’t like it very much for those reasons,” he told Sir Christopher Frayling in a 1985 BBC interview.

But being from an Italian-American background like its author Puzo, he did understand the culture, tradition and family rituals the story was steeped in. And, as he reread the book, he saw there was much more to it than just a potboiler about crime, sex and revenge. The story had themes that were classical in their nature, a powerful father and family bonds, a son yearning to escape his fate, old-world values clashing with a changing society, honour and betrayal, and how power corrupts the souls of those who wield it.

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“Obviously I was more interested in those themes but those themes could apply to a Shakespeare play, or any piece that deals, you know, Greek drama even really, that deals with those bigger themes, and that’s more where I had my attention on,” Coppola told Barry Norman.

He and Puzo drew out these themes as they worked together on the screenplay. Coppola told the BBC that at the heart of the film lies an examination of power dynamics, the corrupting influence of powerful families and a commentary on the way the US operates on the world stage.

Parallels with the US

The first film’s timeline, which spans from the 1940s to the 1950s, coincides with an era where the US is emerging from the ashes of World War Two, and becoming a dominant force on the global stage. The Corleones, a family bonded not just by blood but by their immigrant background, represent an America that is both insular looking and ruthless in its application of force and influence in its own self-interest.

In the film, Don Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) will, depending on the situation, negotiate, bribe, intimidate or resort to savage violence to ensure that his family’s interests and power are maintained. Likewise, the US, faced with what it saw as the threat of the Soviet Union, was being accused of using clandestine operations or bribery to destabilise rival countries, forming alliances with other nations, promising them its protection and fighting proxy wars in other countries, to ensure US interests prevailed.

Michael (Al Pacino) explicitly makes this parallel to his girlfriend Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) when he tells her he is going to work for his father, saying to her “My father is no different than any other powerful man, any man who’s responsible for other people, like a senator or a president.”

“Do you know how naïve you sound,” Kay says. “Senators and presidents don’t have men killed.” To which Michael, ever the realist, replies: “Who’s being naïve, Kay?”

It seemed to me that Michael Corleone in the first Godfather, like America, started really with some ideals, freshness – Francis Ford Coppola

Don Corleone, who had fled Europe following the murder of his family, like many immigrants is rooted in the traditions of the culture he came from, while his son Michael who has grown up in the US, is more assimilated into the changing, post-war world.

WATCH: Francis Ford Coppola on The Godfather: ‘I made it personal, that’s why I cast it the way I did’.

A good college student who has come back from fighting for his country, initially Michael comes across as an idealist, and appears to be clear-sighted as to what his family does and how he is different from them. When he tells Kay the story of how his father got his godson, the singer Johnny Fontane, out of his contract – by having a gun held to the head of his bandleader – Michael reassures her saying “That’s my family Kay, that’s not me.”

“It seemed to me that Michael Corleone in the first Godfather, like America, started really with some ideals, freshness, and although he came from Europe, as America really was born out of Europe, there were these new ideals and new directions which was so inspiring,” Coppola told Barry Norman in 1991.

Vito Corleone, and Michael after him, are not mere criminals but power brokers who understand that influence is as essential as violence to manipulate and control situations in their favour. Vito understands that the essence of power is the ability to compel others to act against their own best interests, and he distils this idea down to a line which became synonymous with the film: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

A cultural touchstone

As the film progresses, Michael slowly assumes his father’s role. He begins to exercise power through coercion, blackmail or violence. Yet he, like his father, still clings to the trappings of respectability, often seen through his relationships to the Catholic Church, businesses or politicians, to provide a cover of legitimacy for his behaviour.

When Michael ruthlessly consolidates his power and deals out what he sees as justice to his enemies, this veneer of respectability is brought into sharp focus. Scenes of him renouncing the devil at his nephew’s Christening are intercut with a jarring montage of brutal murders he has ordered of people he sees as threats.

Coppola felt that the betrayal of ideals – that Michael seemed to represent at the beginning of the film – act as a metaphor for America’s own conduct on the world stage. “As [Michael] grew older, as illustrated by the second movie, like America, as it really began to function in the world and deal in the responsibilities and manipulations of power, he began to construct, I feel, almost a hypocrisy. Which is to say ‘I’m doing this for good, I’m doing this for the family, I’m doing this for good things,'” said Coppola.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Michael justifies his actions with the supposedly “good ends” of protecting his family, which he conflates with his own strategic criminal goals and, as the film saga shows, ultimately fails to keep his family safe. At the time he was working on the Godfather, pictures of the brutality and anarchy of the war the US was conducting in Vietnam and its horrific human cost were filtering back, leading people to question what the US was doing there.

Coppola draws this parallel with Michael’s dubious claims for his own motivation and the US’s stated aims of fighting for freedom and democracy overseas, while relentlessly pursuing its own foreign policy objectives. “His actions were certainly like America, saying we want democracy, we want freedom, all these good things but much of the behind-the-scenes actions, necessitated by politics meant we were in a way staining ourselves, like Michael Corleone, like the soul of Dorian Gray was being stained.”

WATCH: ‘The original Godfather book had a lot of sleazy aspects’: Francis Ford Coppola

After its release, The Godfather became a huge critical and commercial success. It won three Oscars, including for best picture and best adapted screenplay, and its success prompted an equally lauded sequel two years later, The Godfather: Part II, which went on to win another six Oscars.

The film has become an abiding cultural touchstone that can be seen through many different lenses, a metaphor for US capitalism, a commentary on the American Dream and even a critique of the motion picture industry itself. Indeed, in a sign of how rich the story is for possible interpretations, John Hulsman and Wess Mitchell’s 2009 book, The Godfather Doctrine, argues that the film is really a parable for precisely the pragmatic foreign policy approach that US should adopt in a post 9/11 world.

However you view it, the film is, among other things, a story about power, how to gain it, how to keep it and how the pursuit of it will inevitably come at a cost to yourself and those you love.

Coppola was writing the screenplay at a period when the US emerged as a superpower, and felt that the country was increasingly justifying using any means to shape global events in its favour.

The first film ends on a sombre note with a shot of the door closing on Kay as Michael, who has just lied to his wife about his murderous actions, is crowned the new Don. Coppola seems to be offering a stark warning – just as Michael’s actions corrupt the person he once believed he was and come at a terrible price for those he loves and wants to protect, so this behaviour could do the same to the US.

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