As current events include news of libraries, museums, and archives suffering casualties caused by war and conflict, the recent film “The Monuments Men” is a decent attempt to ask: How do we preserve items of cultural heritage from destruction, and are such attempts worth the human lives lost in the process?
The real-life Monuments Men were a collection of art historians and museum personnel under the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program, dispatched by the American military in the waning months of World War II. Its mission was to thwart plans by Adolph Hitler to destroy thousands of cultural icons the Nazi Army stole during its march through a devastated Europe.
After D-Day in 1944, Hitler left standing orders as the United States and its allies gained control of the war: If he couldn’t have the art for a giant “Fuhrer’s Museum” he planned in his Austrian hometown, nobody could. The Nazis intended to burn, break, or bury every piece on their retreat to Germany.
Other works about the Monuments Men include the 1964 film “The Train,” the 1966 film “Paris is Burning,” The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas, and a documentary film by the same name.
“The Monuments Men” co-writer, co-producer, and director George Clooney tried to make this serious war story enjoyable by bringing aboard veteran comic actors like Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and John Goodman to play a special unit tasked to find stolen art and return it to their rightful owners. Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett also star in the German-American film, which is based on the book Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert Edsel. One is his earlier works, Rescuing Da Vinci, is of a similar theme.
Michelangelo's Madonna and Child statue. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
This likeable team tries to intercept the art before it’s too late, including Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child statue and the Ghent altarpiece, and the one-liners fly fast and furious. The laughs work on some level as these intellectuals try to navigate the difficulties of basic training and the battlefield as soldiers. Given what the actual men had to work with, the facts of the successful missions of the platoon are remarkable in their breadth and scope.
A chronological plot stretching 118 minutes can drag and Clooney and and co-writer and co-producer Grant Heslov could have tightened up the story’s focus by re-arranging the structure some. More character dimension could have made the protagonists more convincing art and history experts. Otherwise the film does a lot well: Orchestral music by the well-known Hollywood composer Alexandre Desplat set against a lovely backdrop of war-time Europe make a nostalgic audio-visual package.
While the mixture of comedy and war picture miss the mark in revealing the true price the men paid for the lasting impact of their work (with the exception of when Bill Murray’s character stares down a leading antagonist into surrendering stolen art), the refreshing omission of graphic violence, profanity strings, and sexuality that can make movie-going awkward depending on who you’re with align with the PG-13 rating.
Clooney also proves that depiction of gruesome events in the style of “Schindler’s List” and “The Piano” do not necessarily a war movie make. Empty apartments, leveled towns, bloody military hospitals, displaced art and furniture, and discovered barrels full of gold teeth salvaged from concentration camps do enough to powerfully symbolize the horror of war and the Holocaust. However, in terms of violence toward culture, even Mel Gibson could not have taken the scene of enemies flame-torching heaps of unique paintings to a more gut-wrenching extreme.
When otherwise weak narrative wasn’t also trying to humor, simple elements hit the mark in expressing big ideas. Toward the end of the film, Clooney’s character proclaims to a captured Nazi official that news of his death sentencing for war crimes will run in the New York Times and a Jewish deli owner in New York City will read it, then not care, and use the newspaper to wrap fish. What precedes that line is perhaps the most chilling revelation of Nazi psychosis in movie history. Captured solder asks Clooney’s character:
“Are you Jewish?”
Then the solder says something along the lines of, “Then you will thank me.”
Overall, “The Monuments Men” is a convincing story about the power of art and its importance to the dignity of the human spirit. In the final scene, a senior version of Clooney’s character visits the Madonna and Child in the 1970s with his grandson. As crowds of young tourists wearing backpacks meander around the statue, he remembers his comrade’s death while trying to save the statue from Nazi theft was, in fact, worth it. It was a touching gesture to the momentous nature of the mission, and the continuing importance of preserving cultural heritage for future generations.