I understand why George Clooney would have been intrigued with filming “The Monuments Men.” In a dramatic, yet true, World War II episode, eleven museum directors, art curators, and art historians voluntarily joined the Army to save millions of supremely important European paintings and sculptures.
The Nazis had systematically plundered the art from museums and churches in order to display them in Hitler’s planned grandiose Fuhrermuseum. As World War II was ending in Europe, the platoon risked their lives to chase down caches of these precious works before they could be destroyed by the retreating Nazis or stolen by the invading Russians.
The film begins with Clooney’s character, Frank Stokes (based on the actual Lieutenant George Stout) explaining to President Roosevelt the importance of saving the art. Upon receiving permission to proceed, Stokes assembles his team in a manner somewhat reminiscent of “Ocean’s Eleven,” as he recruits art mavens well played by Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville.
They chase the art across seven European countries, re-capturing almost five million pieces with the help of their own bravery, good luck, secret maps, tips and a secretary (well played by Cate Blanchett) at Paris’ Jeu de Paume. In actuality, 345 men and women from thirteen nations participated in the search, recovery and return of irreplaceable works of art.
What the actual Monuments Men accomplished was nothing short of miraculous. But now we must ask the question, did this heroic effort develop into a great movie? George Clooney said in a recent interview about the film,
“We thought it was sort of a mix between “Kelly’s Heroes,” … [a 1970 comedy-action film starring Clint Eastwood in which a gang of GIs searches for Nazi gold] and “The Train,” [a 1965 John Frankenheimer tense action film in which the French Resistance must stop a train loaded with French art treasures before it is sent to Germany] … and we wanted to talk about a very serious subject that’s ongoing still. We also wanted to make it entertaining. That was the goal.”
Clooney’s goal is difficult to achieve, and although I very much enjoyed the film, especially the acting, “Monuments Men” should have had a tighter and more focused screenplay. The film is about the importance of art and who “owns it; the individual men of the squad and their growing together as a team; the bravery and pathos of war; and the “banality of evil.”
By trying to follow closely the book on which it is based, no individual dramatic component of the film grabs the viewer. For example, we don’t learn enough about the squad members to identify with them or be much involved with them. “The Monuments Men” has its moments of emotion, tension and brave acts, but we don’t feel them much. One exception is when Bill Murray listens to a home recording of the song of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
And then, there’s no satisfying conclusion. Clooney’s character makes a final report to President Truman (F.D.R. having died in April 1945). The mission has been completed. The platoon returns to their respective lives and careers.
George Clooney’s sixth screen effort as director continues his interest in publicizing stories that should be told, particularly to younger generations, such as his 2005 film, “Good Night and Good Luck.” “The Monuments Men” continues this vital effort. It also personalizes the tragedy of lost and stolen art and the reluctance of current custodians to return them to the heirs of their original owners.
The trailer for “The Monuments Men” refers to the film as “the greatest untold story.” But of course, it has been told many times in many formats over the last 70 or so years. Aside from the many news reports and the films Clooney discussed in his interview, these may be of interest:
- “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” by Robert Edsel (Center Street, 2009), from which the film was adapted,
- The award-winning documentary, “The Rape of Europa,”(2008) jointly written, produced and directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham,
- The book, “The Rape of Europa,” by Lynn Nicholas, (Vintage, 1994) the basis for the documentary of the same name,
- “Rescuing Da Vinci: Hitler and the Nazis Stole Europe’s Great Art – America and Her Allies Recovered It” by Robert M. Edsel (Laurel Publishing, 2006,),
- The Monuments Men Foundation http://www.monumentsmenfoundation.org/