On Wrestling: Why the Bruno Sammartino doc should have aired on Mother's Day



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Mother's Day would have been an appropriate time to air Bruno's Sammartino's documentary, especially in a week where the NBA MVP Kevin Durant spoke so emotionally of his mother’s importance to his success and after the WWE played up Mr. T’s mother-themed Hall of Fame speech. During this past week's NFL Draft, the numbers of athletes thanking their mothers was even more pronounced.

That’s what Mother’s Day is all about. Unfortunately, the folks in western Pennsylvania lost a chance to see a documentary on Bruno’s life, which undoubtedly tells the story of the heroics of Emilia Sammartino.
Anyone who knows Bruno knows the love he has for his mother. Of course, no talk about Bruno would be complete without mentioning Carol, his wife of 50+ years, mother of his children, and "best of buddies”. How she shaped his career is of equal interest for anyone wanting to know Bruno’s story, but without Emilia there would be no Bruno – at least three times, considering her battles to keep him from death.

Why the documentary did not air this weekend, after a few announcements that it would (including me) is a little frustrating, but the realities of the negotiations surrounding the documentary (and other projects) are always complicated. I know from recent talks with Bruno that talking the documentary (and the movie) aren’t the best of subjects, and he’s seemingly promised or lead others to believe of those expectations too many times, which makes the latest situation all the more frustrating.
The movie, I’ve been told, is not dead, but slow-moving. There’s not much currently to say about the documentary, considering that the negotiations are not completed. What I have learned is that there appears to be interest in a national airing and/or a worldwide distribution, which complicates things immensely.
One thing for sure about the documentary is the story of Emilia and how she enabled her family to survive the war and how she willed her son to survive the devastation and disease that followed the war. Keep in mind some background about Bruno, his mother, and World War II:
  • When Bruno was seven or eight years old, he lived with his mother and two siblings. His father (whom he never knew) was stuck in Pittsburgh where he worked, and was unable to return to Italy due to the conflicts in North Africa before the full-blown war.
  • Italy (Sicily) was invaded by the Allied Forces in July of 1943, and German forces opposed it. As the invasion progressed, the Italian support for the war waned. By September 1943, the German presence in Italy was for defensive purposes or their own nation. Nazi influence should not be trivialized, but now the Germans were utterly feared.
  • Bruno’s home town of Pizzoferrato, nestled in the Abruzzi mountains, was a piece of land that the SS deemed important. (The SS was the elite forces of the Nazis, impacting well beyond military actions. Their presence was to control things).
  • The Germans rolled into town, and the villagers (about 900) raced for safety.
  • Families and relations headed for different locations, and many ultimately settled at Valla Rocca, a taller mountain a valley and another mountain away from Pizzoferrato.
Just to further explain the situation, a half-million Italians (including civilians) died during and after the war. Nearly four million Italians served in the Italian Army during World War II and nearly a quarter of a million civilians lost their lives. Tens of thousands of Italians died in resistance, and in various camps.
I know of Bruno’s recent returns to Italy, and how emotional the trek to Valla Rocca was for him, following his experiences during the war 60 years prior. Bruno did not want to travel to Valla Rocca one year, both because of his heart surgery and the emotional impact He would later visit it for the documentary and the want for 360 degree filming.
It’s almost impossible to imagine how his family survived, and even more amazing how his mother, then 48 years old, willed the survival of her three children, survived being shot, being lined up in front of a machine gun with her children, survived numerous returns to her house, and always made sure her children ate from her raids on her own provisions.
Bruno would later say that the “the war aged her 30 years”. I’m told the trek, with tractors and on foot, was trying for the crew. But they weren’t dodging bombs and flying dirt, Nazis and the elements, the wilderness and civilization at war, and they didn’t walk the entire way, nor did they have traumatic memories of the location.
But they came away with awe.It is hard to imagine the fear of a young child, watching as your mother walks down a mountain, understanding how far she must travel, fearful of the dangers she faced, hoping for her return. Her round trip took 2 or 3 days.
It took a day or so for Emilia to travel one way, to sneak through dangerous situations, to time to arrive at her house at night. There, at the the house (built by her and Alphonse, her husband), vicious killers (“animals”, as Bruno calls them) were sleeping on the first floor, while she snuck into her own basement to get potatoes or corn or flour or whatever she could carry back to Valla Rocca, avoiding danger (most of the time) and going back to her children.
Her re-appearance up the trail will be a little easier to understand if you see Kenny Brown’s Documentary, voiced by KDKA’s Larry Richert. Bruno’s 1990 Autobiography describes it as a “difficult and treacherous climb” but mere words cannot paint a proper picture.
Nor can mere words completely explain the situation: the starvation, the devastation and horrors of the war. Bruno told me it was emotionally exhausting as well, and he had nightmares reliving his past after that experience two years ago.
After the war was over, even before the widespread devastation and lack of necessities (let alone medical assistance) were apparent, Bruno battled for his life again. Emilia had to make that journey one more time, carrying her youngest son: who was unable to walk and struggled at times to breathe.
Bruno told Greg Oliver, in a Slam Wrestling interview, of his mother’s vow:
"Because I'd lost a brother and a sister, my mother swore that she was not going to lose another child. And we survived because of her love and care that only a mother can give a child."
After saving her children from war, she battled death again, and Rheumatic Fever was the deadly opponent.
That disease damaged Bruno’s heart, which would threaten him some sixty years later, but at the time – without hospitals, without doctors. It is a killer disease in modern facilities, but it was another miracle of survival caused by the love of a Mother. Emilia used every bit of folklore medicine she knew or could learn. She used leeches, had Bruno breathe in steam, tried various things but most of all dedicated herself to giving her son another chance at life.
Bruno said about his Mother: “She’s given me two lives” and that he learned courage from her.
“My whole life was because of my Mom… The sacrifices made. The hell she went through. She had a desire, a will to move forward, to go through.”
This gave him discipline and perseverance and set the stage for his success in one of the most brutal careers around.
”No matter what agony I went through, no matter what pain I mentioned, the sacrifices she made. I know that none of it compare to what she went through.” But more important is that thing called integrity.
“I felt everything I did, and do, I wanted my Mom to be proud of me. My Mom was so proud. She would be introduced: This is Bruno Sammartino’s mother! She was so proud… I wouldn’t do anything intentionally, intentionally, that would bring shame to my Mother, that would bring dishonor to my Mom. Or anything like that. If I would, if I did, I would be destroyed.”
“Because if there was one person I never wanted to hurt in my life, in any way, shape or form, it is my Mom.” That, my friends, is a statement we should all hold dear, today and every day.
Happy Mother’s Day to everyone!