Matteo Pretelli (Author of "Hollywood’s Depiction of Italian American Servicemen During the Italian Campaign of World War II")

I soldati italoamericani nei film sulla seconda guerra mondiale: stereotipi o eroi?

Apr 13, 2021 2403 ITA ENG

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor (this year is the 80th anniversary) and the United States declared war, Italy also went to war with America on the basis of the alliance pact signed with Japan. Italians who lived in America found themselves guiltless citizens of an enemy country: some were removed from the two coasts, all were asked to choose between Italy and the United States and almost all chose America. But Italian Americans were the ethnic group that, more than any other, enlisted to fight in World War II, and many of them wanted to participate in the liberation of the country where their parents or grandparents were born. 

Therefore, there are many war films set in World War II that have at least one Italian American soldier among the protagonists. But until now, no one had ever analyzed them to understand how they were portrayed. This gap has been filled by Professor Matteo Pretelli, who teaches at the University of Naples "L'Orientale" and is one of the most important Italian scholars of the history of relations between Italy and the United States. It is with great pleasure that we welcome him on We the Italians

Professor Pretelli, the goal of your essay is to investigate the presence and the function of Italian American servicemen in Hollywood’s World War II movies set in Italy and to understand the value ethnicity had in films depicting American soldiers of Italian descent against the backdrop of their ancestral country. Please tell us how did you come up with this idea and what were the results of your research

This essay is as part of a wider research that I am dealing with, together with another researcher, Dr. Francesco Fusi from the University of Pisa, about the role of the Allied servicemen of Italian background who participated to World War Two, including those deployed in the Italian campaign. The research on the movies will be a chapter of the book we are writing which should be published in 2022.

I thought that would be interesting to look at how Hollywood portrayed the Italian American servicemen, because looking at a number of different movies produced from the wartime to more recent times, one may disclose how very often there is an Italian American serviceman portrayed. A case in point, for instance, is the internationally-acclaimed Saving Private Ryan, a movie in which there is an Italian American soldier, Private Adrian Caparzo.

I tried to identify movies containing Italian American servicemen and out of a list of hundreds Hollywood’s plots I found about thirty American films.

The first section of your paper looks at the Italian battlefield as a cross-cultural site, given the composite character of the US forces, which included African American and Japanese American soldiers…

Italians usually think the Americans liberated Italy, so they are perceived as liberators and heroes. The reality was much more complex, because the Italian campaign was made up of a number of soldiers of different nationalities and ethnicities. Think about, for instance, the Indian colonial troops that were part of the Commonwealth. Or the New Zealanders who entered first in my city, Florence; or the North African troops who were associated with the French.

In addition, within the American forces minorities were an important component. The African American forces (the so-called “Buffalo Soldiers”) were part of the Italian campaign, as depicted in Spike Lee’s movie, The Miracle at St. Anna. Japanese Americans as well had been deployed in Italy to fight the Fascists and the Nazis. And again, movies are interesting in that sense, because they have been portrayed in the 1951 film Go for Broke!.

The second part of your paper investigates the way Hollywood promoted the value of patriotism, and how this was done through onscreen representations of Italian American servicemen...

Hollywood highly promoted patriotism. In wartime, the movie industry and the federal government establishment an agreement in order to promote American patriotism. All the way to sell the US “right war”, the “good war” aimed to fight against totalitarianism. Against the backdrop of ethnic labels to which Italian American servicemen were associated in war movies produced till the 1950s, Italian Americans have been described as true patriots very much committed to win the American war and beat the Axis powers.

Please describe us how was for Italian Americans to be at war in their ancestral homeland

Italian Americans had very different reactions when asked to be part of the Italian campaign. Some decided not to join, because they could not really think about themselves fighting against Italians: so they asked to be sent to the Pacific and to escape the war in Europe. Others were happy to be part of the Italian campaign because they wanted to liberate Italy from Fascism, and contribute to save their ancestral country.

Generally speaking, these servicemen acted as cultural brokers, in the sense that they facilitated the sort of reconciliation towards Italians by the bonds of language and culture, since they spoke Italian. One must never forget how from 1941 to 1943 Italians and Americans fought each other; therefore, some Italians could see the Italian American soldiers as part of an occupying foreign army.

This is something my father told me when I was a child, and reading your paper I got confirmation: language was a very important factor…

Yes, absolutely. Given the fact these people spoke Italian, or at least dialects, was very helpful, very important. They knew the culture, so they have idea about how to behave in the Italian towns when they met Italians. Furthermore, they could be interpreters, as non-Italian Americans could not speak Italian. So Italian American servicemen helped connecting with the local population, while the Italian language is an important component coming out in some Hollywood’s movies I have analyzed. For instance, in 1980 The Big Red One Sicilian American Private Vinci’s translations for his battalion play a main role in the filmic narrative.

Italian Americans also function to bridge Italians and the American troops, as they comprehend local culture. The encounter between Italian American servicemen and Italian women and families is particularly interesting…

These guys arrived for the very first time in Italy dressing the American uniform; they knew Italy only from their parents' stories and tale, the majority had never been to Italy before. During the breaks from fighting, they could visit relatives into their ancestral towns, the places from where their families had departed. The encounter with this people was incredible, because it was an astonishing way to reconnect. US officers particularly facilitated these trips, because they believed they would ease reconstructing their whole relationship with Italians.

Encountering women was fundamental. One third of the overall number of American soldiers who married Italian women during and after the war was Italian Americans. They shared the same culture, traditions, history. I spoke to a woman from Livorno who married an Italian American soldier originally from Abruzzo. She told me how hanging out with this guy was acceptable for her community, because he spoke Italian and was of Italian background. Instead, hanging out with non-Italian Americans was harder, because girls could actually be perceived as prostitutes.

Do these films perpetuate some of the most typical stereotypes associated with Italians in early cinema, portrayed as getting drunk, fighting, dancing, and treating women quite explicitly?

Especially in wartime and in early post war movies, long-term filmic stereotypes of Italians, such as the drunk guy, the buffoon, the Latin lover persisted. Think about, for instance, Frank Sinatra playing Private Maggio in From Here to Eternity (1953) as a typical Italian American soldier. But probably the most characteristic is Private Regazzi in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), a film starred by John Wayne. In one of the most famous WWII movies, Private Regazzi is indeed the typical Italian American getting drunk, crazy about ladies, and being a sort of joyful buffoon. Yet, eventually he ends up to be a very patriotic guy, because he completes a war mission and saves his battalion.

Thus, one has dichotomic views of Italian American servicemen. On one side ethnic stereotypes, on the other patriotic men. Stereotypes fade away as time goes on. Especially from the 1960s onwards, Italian American servicemen are quite indistinguishable from their peers, or might be often recognized only by Italian surnames or the way they dress Catholic crucifixes.

One thing I learnt from your essay is that in these movies Italians are usually seen as jovial and good people, as well as full supporters of the United States. This image is very far from that of the “inhumane” German and Japanese fighters...

In the Italian memory Italian Americans are the liberators, hardly one can think differently. At the same time, Americans did not use to label Italians as “enemies” as they did with Japanese and the Germans. The Italian armed forces were not strong as the German and the Japanese, and the American war against Italians was short, since after 8 September 1943 the Italians joined the Allies as co-belligerents. Writing about the Italians, Thomas Guglielmo calls them “the forgotten enemy”, to the point the American popular culture (including Hollywood) tended to “forget” how the Italians had been enemies.

I hear that there’ll be an exhibition regarding these topics, please tell us more

The American Embassy in Italy has been kind enough to finance me an exhibition about the topic of my research: the Italian American servicemen in WWII, or to be more precise, the Allied servicemen of Italian background. Our research and our exhibition, thus, will be comparing the Italian Americans to the war experience of Italian Canadians, Italian Australians, the Italo-British and Italian Brazilians. Yet, given their sizeable numbers the case of Italian Americans will be predominant. The exhibit will be in bilingual (Italian and English) installments and will be organized in Florence. Originally the plan was to open in October, a couple of months before the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. However, the pandemic obliged us to review our plans, so we hope to have the exhibit by Spring 2022. We are confident that it is going to be an interesting event for the attendees and, who knows, maybe it will be possible to host the exhibition in other parts of Italy, or even in the United States.

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