I work in heritage, and in my time I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world and see some of its ancientry. I’ve visited some of Europe’s most famous museums and architectural marvels, for example.
And for that reason I was duly excited by two pieces of news over the past year: one, that there was to be a movie, Monuments Men, about efforts to preserve Europe’s art treasures against destruction in the Second World War; two, that the movie was based on real events to the same effect!
The book Monuments Men was written by Robert M. Edsel to document the exploits of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives preservation unit of the Allied forces in World War II.
As part of his ambitions of conquest and the building of a racially pure empire, Adolf Hitler and his senior minions engaged in seizure and wholesale theft of the art treasures of Europe and the destruction of those deemed of ‘impure’ pedigree.
At the same time, as Allied armies struck into Europe, the artistic luminaries of America were alarmed at the damage inflicted in the name of military expediency to several great monuments. This created the move toward the formation of a specialist unit in charge of ensuring the preservation of heritage structures and the recovery of looted art treasures, many of which are famous to this day.
The Monuments Men, operating with the blessing but little material support from Allied Supreme Command, follow the advancing armies, enlisting local aid to secure buildings against damage and retrieving stolen artworks.
In particular, two works of art form the main objects of the pursuit in Edsel’s narrative: the famous altarpiece of Ghent, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, and Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, resident in the cathedral of Bruges. Both items were removed from Belgium by the retreating Nazis.
George Clooney has taken it upon himself to render this tale to the big screen, assuming the lead role of an American curator in the army with this cause in mind, and enlisting a number of experts to join the forces to that end. Clooney recalled his old comrade Matt Damon, along with veterans (as it were) of Hollywood like Bill Murray and John Goodman, as well as Cate Blanchett and Downtown Abbey’s own Hugh Bonneville.
The account of the Monuments Mens’ personnel in Edsel’s book is a story that meanders against the current of military bureaucracy, interwoven with the better-known events of the war, and often behind the lines, away from the action, and while the work done was profoundly significant, it was carried out by a handful of men scattered around the war zone. That being the case, the story lacks much of the grand strategy and derring-do other aspects of military history might offer.
Clooney, naturally, endeavoured to lend events a greater narrative unity. Besides that, the movie lends the ragtag handful of characters an underdog comedy element. In the movie, the Monuments Men behave more like commandos or intelligence operatives than technical personnel. Hugh Bonneville’s character goes behind enemy lines at one point to avert the theft of the Bruges Madonna, albeit he’s repaid with failure and death.
By and large, the adaptation takes many of the events that are recounted in the book rendered in a narratively pleasing sequence: the Monuments Men did get a tip from a German dentist, and they did catch an incognito SS officer with stolen art, but the two events aren’t connected as the movie portrays. The first fatality occurs in a valiant attempt to prevent further looting early in the story, not, as in life, some way into matters in a freak artillery strike. They even had a perfect suspenseful ending ready-made as they had to race against time to retrieve the Madonna and the Altarpiece before a Soviet ‘trophy brigade’ got their hands on it.
The characters all have original names, but reading the book you can start to work out which member of the Monuments Men equals which actor in the movie, except for the French soldier, who I can’t connect to any of the actual Monuments Men.
By and large these liberties in the name of storytelling don’t detract from the virtue of the real-life Monuments Men. What I do find annoying is that only the non-American Men die in the movie. Admittedly, this is partly in line with history, but it still rubs me the wrong way.
That said, the European contribution, in particular Cate Blanchette’s character’s (and her real counterpart’s) role in the Resistance, her tribulations and risks while she collected intelligence on the art theft of the Nazis, her suspicion of Americans and determination to get the art back, is given its due, as in the book.
Having said all this, the movie lacks a certain spark. The humour is funny but not paralyzed-with-laughter funny; I feel like the value and preciousness of the art isn’t fully communicated. For me, it’s preaching to the choir, but I fear this wouldn’t sell non-culture-vultures on it. I suspect that it suffers from a case of trying to do too much all at once. It tries to be a classic war story, an ensemble comedy, a morality tale about heritage treasures, and a faithful and precise adaptation all at once. It does not of these badly, but it does a merely respectable job at all of them.
Still it’s pleasant and fun – it occurred to me that it’s basically Ocean’s Eleven in reverse, trying to un-steal things – but not profound. It tells an unknown story about a critical and underappreciated aspect of warfare and European history. It brings a lot of skilled actors and comics into the game, but fails to lend the subject a particular flair. Indeed, they had their work cut out for them, given the actual adventures of the Monuments Men unfolds with a certain grim monotony in Edsel’s narrative, not altogether helped by Edsel’s detailed and somewhat flat attempts at lighthearted writing.
Having said that, this is a major blank in popular history I’m immensely glad to see filled in. Having gritted my teeth in frustration as the heritage of Iraq and Afghanistan were crumbled during wartime in the last decade, the idea that military officers should stand up for the heritage of humankind is a most pleasing idea to be introduced in this cynical age, and to see it rendered into cinema by such a cadre of actors was a real joy.