Movie: The Monuments Men
Rating: 4 Stars (out of 5)
Review: In World War 2, the German armies had captured and occupied all of Europe. By order of Adolph Hitler, all significant artworks were to be confiscated and sent to locations in Germany. Hitler had designed a grand Fuhrer’s Museum that would house the works of art after the war. In 1943, President Roosevelt ordered the creation of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, known as the MFAA, to go to Europe and try to recover as much art and cultural items as possible for eventual restoration to their rightful owners. Hence the band of scholars and art experts turned into soldiers known as the Monuments Men.
Frank Stokes (George Clooney) recruits a ragtag unit of 6 other men, including James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman, and Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin). With minimal combat training, they soon found themselves at the front lines in France trying to protect art works not yet stolen, and to locate sites where the Germans had stored art already looted. Hampered by allied commanders who were reluctant to worry about art getting destroyed, the small Monuments Men unit were often left to their own devices. In one town, Goodman and Dujardin come under sniper fire and despite their fear and inept infantry skills, manage to rush the building to confront their enemy, only to find out they had captured a young boy. (Note: as the war progressed, German boys as young as 12 were pressed into combat). Another reality that made the job difficult for Clooney’s men was the standing order (known as the Nero Decree) that if Hitler dies, all the art was to be destroyed. This fact led the Monuments Men to the ironic conclusion that “we’ll have to hope that no one kills Hitler”! Finally, the other issue making their job even more difficult and time sensitive was the fact that the Russian army had created trophy brigades to grab anything valuable and bring it back to Russia, especially art work.
The movie unfolds as the Monuments Men are often working in different cities trying to develop leads to find the stolen art. Matt Damon slowly convinces a French museum employee, Cate Blanchett, to assist him with art taken from a Paris museum. Eventually Damon’s charm gets him a diary of art titles and destinations which proves invaluable down the line. Damon even gets a gift from the Frenchwoman, a tie, which is cleverly returned later in the film.
The film moves at a rapid pace to keep the viewer’s interest, alternating some scenes of actual combat where lives are lost, with the continuous race to discover clues and find the Nazi treasure troves. Several significant art pieces recovered in the movie are the 15th century Ghent Altarpieces, and Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges. There is certainly poetic license taken with some of the facts, but the story captures the essence of what this amazing small group of men accomplished under extremely trying circumstances. In the movie, as actually occurred, there was an amazing amount of art and treasure found at the Kaiserode mine. In addition to the Alterpieces that were recovered, a vast room was discovered that housed much of the gold and currency for the German Reich, including 100 tons of gold. When generals Eisenhower and Patton show up to inspect the mine, John Goodman wisecracks, “The army doesn’t care much about art, but they sure as shit care about gold”!
Near the end of the movie, Lt Stokes (Clooney) briefs President Truman on the efforts of the Monuments men, noting that they discovered over 1000 art troves and recovered over 5 million art and cultural items. At the very end of the movie, it is now 1977, and Frank Stokes is an old man bringing a young boy to Bruges to see the Michelangelo masterpiece that his team had saved. One can’t help but feel gratitude for the men who made it possible for future generations to enjoy the great works of art that were almost destroyed.
Huh? What the….: OK, time to spill some of the beans. Remember that poetic license I warned you about? The Monuments Men didn’t actually discover the gold hidden at the Kaiserode mine. By the way, at today’s prices that 100 tons of gold would be worth over 4 billion dollars.
Actors to Watch: It was a pleasure to see all the old pros working together in this movie. Special kudos to Bill Murray and John Gooden. That “old man” at the end of the movie is actually George Clooney’s father, Nick Clooney.
Dialogue Nuggets: There are a number of wonderful little scenes scattered through this movie. One of my favorites is during the Battle of the Bulge, Bill Murray has received a phonograph recording from his family at mail call. While Murray takes a shower, his friend plays the record on the machine hooked up to the camp’s PA system. The look on Murray’s face while he hears his daughter sing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is worth the price of the movie ticket. As a side note, the singer is Nora Sagal, a 16 year old woman who is the daughter of a Warner Brothers executive. When George Clooney heard her sing at a private party, he asked her to do the song for the movie. Keep an eye out for this talented young woman to record an album.
Post Credits Stuff: As the movie ends, stay and check out some great photos of the real Monuments Men before the credits roll.