THE MONUMENTS MEN, is a loosely based telling of the work of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Division of the Second World War and George Clooney’s homage to those sixties war movies: “The Guns of Navarone”, “Von Ryan’s Express”, “The Great Escape” and “The Dirty Dozen” (among others).
Apparently he and co-writer Grant Heslov (“The Ides of March”, “Good Night, and Good Luck”) used those movies as their inspiration and guide. And it shows, for what we have in “The Monuments Men” is a curiously old-fashioned, dated and jingoistic re-telling of what should have been a thrillingly exciting ‘adventure story’.
Clooney’s movie makes a very clear case. As hero Frank Stokes (Clooney) says, “if you destroy their achievements, their history, it’s like they never existed”. For him and his fellow Monuments Men, the seemingly quixotic attempt to prevent the Allies bombing out Europe’s great cultural institutions and finding the tens of thousands of art objects pillaged by the Nazis, was more than simply protecting paintings and pillars. It was about protecting those valued objects that comprised a people’s sense of self and cultural identity.
In this story, a prescient Stokes persuades Roosevelt of the need to create and empower this division. One of his early recruits is art restorer James Granger (Matt Damon). With Granger onboard, the team is comprised of seven persons.
Now, I don’t want to impose too much ‘reality’ on the necessary license of fiction, but the impression that it took a Yank with a few others to rescue European civilization is a tad exaggerated. In actual fact, the MFAA division (those Monuments men) was comprised of over 350 officers and was actually initiated by two Brits: Mortimer Wheeler, an archaeologist and John Ward Perkins, an art historian. Certainly, to give credit where it’s due, the Americans, led by one Robert Posey (on whom, perhaps Clooney’s character is based) injected huge energy (and firepower) to an overly Academic British initiative.
(And as an aside, listen to the words of General Eisenhower, who was a driving influence: “Inevitably in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve. It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols wherever possible” Compare this with Rumsfeld’s off-hand comment as the historical artifacts of Iraq were being systematically looted, “shit happens”)
But historical exaggeration is not my issue with this movie. The central problem is that Writers Clooney and Heslov never quite figured out how to knit together all the sprawling threads of the story. For “Monuments…” seeks valiantly to combine a detective drama, with a moral enquiry – is any painting worth a human life? with enough character development to engage our interest, all within the dangers – and politics – of a world at war.
The detective drama is largely underdeveloped and pretty much without a shard of tension and excitement. In the story, they figure out that the art – in particular the twelve paneled van Eyck, “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” and a Michelangelo Madonna and Child – is buried in a number of Austrian salt and ore mines, which they get to, and, eager to beat the advancing Russians, locate and spirit away. In an excitement-free zone, along the way, a couple of them get killed.
Let’s briefly shift back to ‘reality’. There was one, Gauleiter Eigruber, an SS commander, who on Hiltler’s orders had been commanded to destroy all the art in the main mine at Alt Aussee, should the Reich fall. Eigbruger took his command to heart and wired to mine to blow up everything. What he was unaware of was that the local miners were having nothing of this. They sabotaged the wires so that it only blew the entrance. But Eigbruger was not to be so easily denied. He killed a few of the saboteurs and set about one more to complete the task he’d been given. He worked all through the night, and it was pretty much with minutes to spare that he was stopped – by the arrival of the monuments men. The great art of Western civilization was literally minutes away from being destroyed.
Whew! Now that’s drama!
And it’s not what you get in this movie.
As to the characters – they remained wooden cyphers, with Clooney as wooden as a panel of a van Eyck painting. Even the usually outstanding Matt Damon seemed confused as to who he was meant to be – a sort of cool smart talking dude, sort of seductive sleuth, sort of a happy domestic father and sort of astute art academic. Perhaps he was pining simply to be Private Ryan all over again. The others – Bill Murray, John Goodman, Brit Hugh Bonneville, Frenchman Jean Dujardin and Cate Blanchett as the spy who showed the way, all seemed to be extra bodies. Mere additions to the “all star cast”. Essentially, we were introduced to a bunch of famous actors in battle fatigues, none of whom managed to engage us enough to give a damn.
Who can but remember in “The Great Escape”, the ever cool Steve McQueen bouncing his ball in solitary and flying over barriers to try to elude pursuing Germans, or James Garner, the slick con-man who could procure pretty much anything needed, or Charles Bronson, the tunnel man afraid of tunnels or Donald Pleasence, the near blind forger cleverly creating passports from nothing. These characters turned an escape movie into a thrillingly engaging human drama, a battle against odds.
Even the overall tone of “The Monuments Men” is uneven. What starts out as “Oceans Eleven” the WWII version, quickly becomes slow, serious and high-minded only leavened by generous dollops of treacle (a dewy-eyed Bill Murray hears a recording of his wife singing a Christmas song to him; Hugh Bonneville’s father realizes that his son was a man of stature after all. Gosh, how sweet)
All I leave you with is this. The movie begins with the seizure of the van Eyck panels. There are twelve of them, one of which was stolen in 1930. This panel – called the Judges panel – Hitler hoped would lead him to the discovery of the Arma Christie (the thorns, nails etc used in the mortification of Christ). The panel is still missing (the one there at present in the Cathedral in Ghent is a facsimile painted by one Jan van der Veken, who may or may not have been one of the thieves).
Now there’s a story waiting to be written.