‘Monuments Men’ Movie Fascinating History


The problem with The Monuments Men is that it seems far too similar to a lot of the cheap historical docudramas found on the History Channel. Yes, it has plenty of big stars in it. But although the topic — the saving of historical treasures stolen by Nazis before the Soviets got to them during World War II — is worthy, there is remarkably little exciting in the film. Uplifting yes, dramatic no.

George Clooney, who stars in the film, directed it and was a co-author, should be commended for wanting to commemorate the good work done by these people. But the film itself, unfortunately, is only interesting. It is not exciting or gripping.

Clooney copies many World War II films in terms of technique to tell the story of the U.S. Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program. U.S. authorities were concerned about the destruction of Europe’s artistic heritage and gathered a group of art historians and artists to locate and save art looted by the Nazis during the war. German leader Adolf Hitler had planned to gather all of them once he won the war and put them in a museum honoring himself.

Corruption, of course, meant that much of the art was stolen along the way. As the war was coming to a close, a new problem arose in that the Soviet Union wanted to take the art and use it as part of war reparations the Russians felt they were owed from the Germans. Even worse, Hitler had issued a decree that all the art should be destroyed if he were killed.

Clooney plays Frank Stokes (based on real-life Monuments Man George Stout), who rounds up a new kind of “dirty dozen.” Instead of being crooks, they are artists and art historians who are quickly trained and then sent out to follow American troops as they take back territory from the Germans. It should be noted that although based on real people, the characters presented are fake, with their characters altered for dramatic purposes.

The story has been done before, particularly in the movie The Train, which, by concentrating the action on a single event, was able to focus its dramatic themes better. Clooney assembled his own cast, most of whom are well known: John Goodman, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin play the team members. Having well-known performers was effective; we can feel a real connection to them. When Goodman gives one of his patented sighs, you really feel for him. All of the actors perform well.

A major problem was that they divided up the action by breaking up the group (historically accurate but dramatically bad). As soon as one group started getting involved, the movie switched to another group’s action. Many of the scenes are effective, but they never quite string together.

I particularly liked the story of Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), based on real-life infantryman Harry Ettlinger, a Jewish refugee from Germany who had lived as a child in the German city where there was a stunning self-portrait by Rembrandt. As a Jew, he had not been allowed to enter the museum to view it. Finding it in a salt mine, able to look on it as a free American soldier, was a wonderful dramatic moment. There are several of them in the movie, but they do not seem to be linked. I also liked Bonneville as Donald Jeffries, an alcoholic looking for redemption by saving a Michelangelo.

There was a long sub-plot about a woman (Cate Blanchett) who worked in Paris’s Jeu De Paume museum, one of my favorites. The Germans had used the museum as a shipping house to distribute art all over Europe. Pretending she did not understand German, she kept track of thousands of pieces of art.

Interspersed in all of this is Clooney’s narration about the need to preserve our heritage and civilization against evil. While I concur heartily, the dramatic weaknesses of the film kept pulling it down.

I do not wish to create the impression that this is a bad movie. It is not. As a history buff, it is both interesting and important. But, considering the price we have to pay for movie tickets, it would have worked far better as a TV movie.