Our collective view of World War II has changed greatly since the liberation of Europe and the defeat of the Axis in 1945. Information has come to light and disturbing discoveries have puckered our understanding of the last world war, but there once was time when WWII spawned a great deal of comedic material. Movies like Stalag 17 (1953), The Great Escape (1963), even the TV show Hogan’s Heroes (1965–1971) found the lighter aspects of the war — particularly in those who found ways to maintain humanity through frivolity. Life is often silly, even when it is under incredible duress.
Such is the case with 1969’s The Secret of Santa Vittoria, producer/director Stanley Kramer’s adaptation of Robert Crichton’s best-selling novel of the same name. Set in the fictitious Italian town of Santa Vittoria — filmed in the Roman municipality of Anticoli Corrado — and spanning the fall of Benito Mussolini and the subsequent occupation of the German Army, Secret of Santa Vittoria is a classic Hollywood look at WWII. The good guys are good, the bad guys aren’t all bad and there is an ethical code of conduct that is never spoken of but always adhered to. Sure, it is a fantasy, but fantasies are often enjoyable.
The Secret of Santa Vittoria opens in the summer of 1943 with the announcement of Mussolini’s resignation. The town drunk, Bombolini (Anthony Quinn), has climbed the water tower to deface the flag of fascism he installed years earlier. But Bombolini has had too much wine and cannot finish the job. The town gathers at the base of the tower and begins chanting his name, either to finish the job or to jump. Nearby, the town council meets to determine how to best handle the change of power — the fall of Italian fascism means that the German occupation is not far behind — and hears the town chanting one name: Bombolini. It’s a perfect set-up, place the least qualified individual in power and let him take the fall.
Bombolini — the townsfolk produce his name “Bumble-lini” with a heavy stress on the “bumble” — is appointed mayor of Santa Vittoria with much rejoicing. His long-suffering wife, Rosa (the magnificent Anna Magnani), thinks the town is plain dumb for putting her husband in power and admonishes her husband for accepting his position.
Bombolini: It’s nice to have a hot meal before you die.
Rosa: You aren’t going to die.
Bombolini: I’m the mayor, no? The Germans come. I greet them. They threaten me! I spit in their face! They put a pistol to my head and blow out my brains!
Rosa: Why would they put a pistol to your head? The whole world knows Bombolini’s brains are in his ass.
But people can rise to the occasion, and Bombolini addresses the one issue on his mind and others: the wine. Santa Vittoria is well-known for winemaking and when the German’s come, it will be the first thing they want. That wine isn’t just the town’s identity; it’s their history, their future. All 1,317,000 — give or take a few — bottles must be secured.
Bombolini devises a plan to hide a million bottles before the German’s arrive, offer them the remainder and hope that they go on their merry way. A good plan that almost works when the Germans, led by the educated and refined Captain von Prum (Hardy Krüger), arrive; but a ledger is discovered and Prum knows he is shy 1 million bottles.
The wine isn’t the only thing keeping Prum in Santa Vittoria, for he has eyes for a local woman, Caterina (Virna Lisi), who is married to a resistance fighter in hiding. But that love story is secondary to the political struggle between Bombolini and Prum, which isn’t as much about wine as it is about submission and control. Much like Claude Rains’s Capt. Louis Renault in Casablanca, Prum is a reluctant Nazi, one who is more interested in proper dress and manners than he is in crushing the world under the heel of the Reich. Had this movie been made in another decade, Prum would have been much more ruthless and left a trail of devastation is his wake — and possibly played by Klaus Kinski in his prime — but The Secret of Santa Vittoria is not that movie. This is a large Hollywood production, shot on location in Italy, with Kramer using vast vistas to capture the beauty of place and space.
That sense of place and space wasn’t just a hallmark of The Secret of Santa Vittoria; it was the common cinema going experience of the time. Much is lost in the translation from the silver screen to the single screen, but the one thing that can never be lost — in any translation, either visual or linguistic — is the performance of Anthony Quinn. A titan from day one with the face to match, Quinn is the perfect choice for town drunk, mayor and savior all in one. When Bombolini offers a bottle of wine to the Prum saying that, “Where this one came from, we have a million more,” Quinn’s eyes twinkle. How lucky we are that the cameras were there to record that.