MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Monuments Men




U.S.: George Clooney, 2014

War is hell and pain and darkness, But great art shines with an eternal light.  Or does it?

George Clooney’s new movie The  Monuments Men, which is pretty good, but not as good as it should have been, is based on a fascinating historical episode, unknown to me (and to many others, I’m sure), that makes for one of the most inspiring stories of World War II. It’s a drama of war (and the people who fight it) and art (and the people who make and love and preserve it), and, in the film, it’s rendered  as a kind of fact-and-fiction mix of The Guns of Navarone and Kenneth Clark‘s Civilisation, or a Dirty Dozen reshaped for art museum buffs..

The Monuments Men is about the truly heroic art conservation efforts of  the U. S. Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program: a group effort by  servicemen and civilians who were charged with saving the great art works of Europe from the ravages of war — either from inadvertent destruction by Allied air and bombing attacks, or by the malicious acts of Hitler himself.

Der Fuhrer, it turns out, was a threat to steal or destroy much of that treasure. He was himself a mad frustrated artist and art-fancier whose armies and puppet governments had stolen millions of art works throughout Europe, all to stock his personal  collection at the Fuhrermuseum in his home town of Linz. It was believed by some (they were interpreting a Hitler directive known as “The Nero Decree”) that Der Fuhrer intended the total demolition of all his stolen art as part of the scorched earth policy (Burn the bridges! Destroy the trains!) which he wanted to install as revenge for his inevitable final defeat. Against that possibility, Clooney plays his by-now standard role: the good decent liberal who stands up to evil or bullies. In this case he’s the fact-based art restorer and conservationist Frank Stokes, leader of a group of Monuments Men, who were following the Allied forces in Northern Europe, in search of beautiful things to save..

Clooney’s movie (which he directed, co-wrote, co-produced and costars in) has received mixed to negative reviews from most critics. And, despite its very engaging all-star cast, its noble intentions  and its extremely painstaking and beautiful production (designed by James Bissell, and art-directed by Helen Jarvis), it’s easy enough to say that it could have been better. (The problem, as usual, is the script.)  But so could many another movie, and many another art work   — except for some of the masterpieces shown or simulated here,  including Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, and  the Van Eycks‘ Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (or Ghent Altarpiece), which are both among the priceless and exalting works Clooney’s “Stokes” and his team were trying to rescue.

The real-life story is a corker; in fact, I’m surprised that it’s never been the subject of  a film documentary feature  In 1943, with the Allied forces launching their assault on the German Armies throughout Europe,  President Franklin Roosevelt ceded to urgent requests from the American arts and curatorial communities, and formed the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic Historic Monuments in War Areas, later shortened to the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archive program, or MFAA, or “Monuments Men.” This was a group of  servicemen and civilian art experts (most of whom received commissions when they joined the section), who were charged with making sure that historic churches, museums, galleries and other repositories of great European art were spared from Allied bombing attacks (like the one in August, 1943, that nearly destroyed  Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper). They were further assigned the task of locating the hiding places for all the art  the Nazis had stolen and secreted away.


Among the dozen or so Monuments Men who were on the spearhead of the Allies’ advance in Northern Europe were de facto leader and pioneering art conservationist George Stout, museum curator (and later head of the Metropolitan) James J. Lorimer, architect Robert Posey, sculptor Walker Hancock, dance and music specialist Lincoln Kerstein, and their German-speaking Jewish soldier/driver, Harry Ettlinger. In Clooney’s and Grant Heslov’s script, those six men have been fictionalized into the urbane, dedicated  Stokes (played by Clooney), linguistically maladroit  curator James Granger (Matt Damon), beefy artist Walter Garfield (John Goodman), tart dance expert Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and plucky  driver Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas). Two more seemingly fictional art-crusaders have also  been added to this group: alcoholic British fine arts man Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville of “Downton Abbey“), who’s been disgraced and, like Lord Jim, wants another chance, and genial, suave French art dealer Jean-Claude Clermont (played by everyone’s current favorite Frenchman  Jean Dujardin of  The Artist).


There is one lady involved in the action, a very important one: the formidable real-life figure of Rose Valland, a great French national heroine of art (also unknown to me until now), who worked at the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris, a  headquarters for Nazi art pilferage. Rose kept  a secret running record of all the movements of the stolen paintings and drawings and sculptures, a priceless log with which the Monuments Men were able to track down the confiscated and hidden masterpieces. Here, this brave woman,  to whom the international art world  owes an incalculable debt, has been fictionalized and somewhat diminished into a starchy, love-starved heroine named Claire Simon, played by the formidable Cate Blanchett — who gives her a dignity that the script largely misses.


Clooney’s picture, with its first-rate cast and top-notch technical contributions, oscillates somewhat uneasily between more serious Longest Day-style  historical recreation and prestige art history drama (or pseudo-drama), and  a more standard, if very lushly produced,  World War 2 adventure film mode, derived from movies like Guns of Navarone, The Great Escape, A Bridge Too Far or  (closer to home) John Frankenheimer’s The Train, a wildly exciting  1964 WW2 thriller  that covered similar story material from the point of view of the French Resistance.  Mostly the heroic characters, are split up or paired off — Damon with Blanchett, Goodman with Dujardin, and the raffish Murray forming an art-loving Odd Couple with the punctilious Balaban. Clooney’s Stokes meanwhile keeps steering the art hunt and arguing its importance with irascible Army officers, who can’t understand why they should risk lives to save paintings. (The movie could have used one long scene arguing the case by  Commanding General Dwight Eisenhower, one of the project’s strongest supporters, played here, wordlessly, by look-alike Werner Braunschadel, But the movie’s Ike remains silent.)

I liked The Monuments Men more than I disliked it. I appreciated the lavishness of the production and the effort that went into the simulated art works by Jarvis and her team — even though I thought there should have been more footage of the actual art works, as there is, for example, at the end of Vincente Minnelli‘s Van Gogh bio-film Lust for Life). I was glad to be introduced, even in a fictionalized and somewhat clichéd way, to this story and these people. I enjoyed the actors, even though I thought they’d been short-changed by the script, and even though the whole thing probably would have worked better as a TV miniseries than a two hour theatrical feature.

I also liked the sarcastic humanism of the scene where Clooney torments a German ex-prison camp commandant by telling the unrepentant Nazi that, after the war, he’ll be sitting in his favorite Jewish delicatessen in New York City, eating a bagel and reading about how the commandant was executed for crimes against humanity. And I appreciated the sheer love of art and painting and sculpture that the movie celebrates, even though it is somewhat self-important and even corny and it often feels like someone, or maybe history itself, was looking over its shoulder. Never cornier than when Campbell plays a recording of his  daughter (Nora  Sagal) and his granddaughters singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — the later ‘50s Frank Sinatra version of the song with the line “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough,“ (which these people would never have heard), instead of that great sad line that Judy Garland sang so devastatingly to Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me in St Louis: “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.“

It’s clear that Clooney wants to appeal to a smart, knowledgeable audience: moviegoers who can appreciate Judy Garland (or Frank Sinatra) and who also appreciate, or at east respect, high museum art — who know who Michelangelo and  Rembrandt and Vermeer and maybe even Jan Van Eyck and Grunewald are (to name five painters whose works were saved by the MFAA). It’s also clear that he wants to please the war movie and buddy-movie fans who would enjoy The Guns of Navarone or The Bridge on the River Kwai. Yet Clooney and Heslov may be pushing a little too hard to get the movie in its action-adventure mode too. The Monuments Men is an adventure, and the fact that the Monuments guys are all fish out of water thrown into a wartime situation (where two of them, in real life, actually died) makes it even more of one..

The drama here comes from the fact that these men aren’t war heroes or mythic soldiers or the snazzy, wise-cracking ubermenschen guys whom action movies keep showing us. They’re people who love art (as the cast here does,  I imagine) and who were willing to risk their lives to keep that art for future generations. That’s adventure enough — and another reason to forgive the film its sins. One day, maybe we’ll live in a world where we don’t have to worry about mad men with guns and bombs  running amok, and wars that destroy millions of people and millions of beautiful things. Maybe. Until then, I guess, we’ll have to muddle though somehow.


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