The Gruesome True Story Behind The Godfather's Horse Head Scene

"No animals were harmed in the making of this film," the familiar message reads. Most folks nowadays would probably agree that this is a good thing, especially when learning about how animals were treated on movie sets in the past. In fact, Humane Hollywood reports some horrific goings on as recent as 1980's "Heaven's Gate," which featured ludicrously cruel animal treatment like detonating horses (for real), tripping them while they're running, chopping off chicken heads, engaging in actual cock fights, etc. Currently, American Humane gets involved with films to certify them as cruelty-free.  

But how about films that contain things like, say, a severed horse head tossed into an occupied bed? That description likely brings to mind one film, and one film alone: 1972's grand mafia epic "The Godfather," starring Marlon Brando's best bulldog impression. Folks have likely wondered from day one whether or not the very real-looking horse head in character Jack Woltz's bed was indeed real. On that point we've got surprising news and even more surprising news. The surprising news? Yes, the horse head was real. The even more surprising news? As TIME reported, it came from a New Jersey dog food factory. The reason being: Horse meat was a staple in animal food products for decades and only started petering off in the 1940s, as CBS News explains. And at "The Godfather" director Francis Ford Coppola's request, the nameless factory in question agreed to reserve — and preserve — the head of a horse scheduled for death.

Real head, real screams of terror

It must have been quite the behind-the-scenes scene on the day that Francis Ford Coppola and the "Godfather" production team received their severed horse head in 1972. According to TIME, the art director picked out the horse and had it sent to the production team. The outlet claims Coppola recalled that a "crate" arrived on set — not a soaked-through cardboard box, thankfully — packed with dry ice. Someone had to presumably strap on some gloves for protection against the dry ice, fish elbows-deep through it, grab and heft into the air the grimacing face of a bodiless horse, and cry, "Hey Francis, your head's here!" Per the Los Angeles Times, TIME's reporting is supported by Coppola's telling of the story in the commentatory for the 2001 "The Godfather DVD Collection." Elsewhere, though, The Spectator says Coppola dispatched a stealthy assistant to the factory in question, who came back that same day carrying a "stinking object" that had been "newly hewn" from a horse.

Either way, the head was part of a scheme on Coppola's part to terrify everyone involved. Per The Spectator, he even wrote a note to himself, saying, "If the audience does not jump out of their seats on this one, you have failed." On that note, actor John Marley's terrified screams in the head scene were just as real as the head itself — no one told him it wouldn't be a prop. He just laid there in the bed, someone tossed in the head, his toe brushed it, and bam: instant cinema history.

Dog food leftovers

In case the reader hasn't caught "The Godfather" or doesn't remember its plot, the horse head scene revolves around a prominent Hollywood producer, Jack Woltz, getting strongarmed by the Godfather — Vito Corleone played by Marlon Brando — into helping singer Johnny Fontaine get his career back. When asked how he's going to get Woltz to play ball, Corleone utters one of the most famous lines in cinema: "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse." That offer is the severed horse head tossed into Woltz's gold-trimmed bed, which drives home that no one is safe in Corleone's Italian-American mafia world. 

Francis Ford Coppola's decision to use a real horse head couldn't suit the world of the film better, or define its stakes more accurately. The Spectator says that his horse head decision came at a time when "young punks" like Coppola were making it clear that they were willing to push Hollywood filmmaking boundaries. Unfortunately, it earned the director some flak. Per the Los Angeles Times, Coppola disclosed that the head was real in the 2001 "The Godfather DVD Collection" and said that activists had sent him angry letters after the film's release, thinking the crew killed the animal for the scene.

And in case you're wondering, The Humane Society of the United States says the last horse slaughterhouses in the U.S. were shut down as recently as 2007, but horse meat can still be imported. According to Marion Nestle in Food Politics, it remained in pet food until at least the 1940s. "Although it continues to be permitted in pet food, I'm not aware of any company that would dare use it," she wrote.