‘If you like the film, tell your friends,’ said George Clooney, introducing his new movie The Monuments Men at the Odeon Leicester Square. It was the London premiere and he was on stage with the rest of the cast including Matt Damon, John Goodman and Bill Murray. They were also joined by the elderly Harry L. Ettlinger, who had been one of the original team of Monuments Men on which the film was based.
‘If you don’t like…’ George continued. He got no further. A women in the row behind me shouted – impressively loudly – ‘We love you George!’
Cool as some cucumbers Clooney replied ‘My aunt is in tonight!’ and the packed audience laughed. I think Clooney added, ‘…the film don’t tell anyone’, but it was hard to make out over the noise.
The cast filed off stage, the lights dimmed, popcorn rustling began and The Monuments Men was officially released in London.
Films that combine the explosions of war and fine art appreciation are rare. I can’t remember the last time I saw concern about the survival of Michelangelo’s David and the bloody events in a field hospital in one movie. Yet The Monuments Men is based on a true story. During World War II a team of experts was put together and sent to Europe to try and protect works of art. More importantly for the film, they also tried to discover where the Germans were taking stolen art.
Set towards the end of the war, the Germans are in retreat and stealing or burning books and artistic masterpieces. Charred frames labelled with the names of modern masters remind of the works we have completely lost to the nazis. Millions of works were stolen by the German army from private collections and churches, but the film concentrates on the missing Ghent Alterpiece by Jan van Eyck and his brother and the Michelangelo sculpture the Madonna of Bruges.
Starting with a military Blues-Brothers-style getting the band back together sequence, Clooney’s character Frank Stokes is a middle-aged academic putting together a team of experts. He has seen the Allied destruction of the monastery at Monte Casino and the lucky survival of The Last Supper in Milan and recommends the US President sends some young fellows to Europe to protect works of art. The trouble is, all the young fellows are already in Europe, armed and in the thick of the action. So Stokes collects a crew from amongst his own friends – architects, collectors and academics all past the age of active service. Together they head to England to prepare for war.
This Dad’s Army of art lovers is not popular with the regular army, but manages through luck, coincidence and the help of Claire Simone, played by Cate Blanchett, to get on the trail of the missing artwork. With the war ending the emphasis changes, from beating the Germans to racing against the Russians – if the art fell into the hands of the communist allies it would not be returned to its owners but shipped back to Moscow.
Although Clooney is the lead, The Monuments Men is an ensemble piece and suffers from having to follow the exploits of seven different characters sent in pairs or singly to different parts of occupied Europe. We skip between Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and the others in Belgium, Paris and other parts of France. It is never edge-of-the-seat thrilling and the war scenes are filmic and too polished, though a scene of dozens of white grave crosses being unloaded in the background is poignant. The actors appear to enjoy their parts and convey the excitement and fear that comes with their unusual late-in-life mission, but they are not much differentiated. It succeeds as a realistic way of getting older stars into a war movie, but John Goodman’s artist is introduced creating a work of monstrous dimensions which questions whether he should be part of this team of connoisseurs at all.
The story is portrayed as a straight case of good versus evil with the Americans quite definitely play the part of the good. The baddies are not developed, as though we know the basic story and have no need to see it again. ‘If it wasn’t for us you’d be speaking German,’ Claire is told by an American at one point. She is not so impressed. ‘I might be dead, but I’d still be speaking French,’ she retaliates.
The film questions the value of art, the value we place on human creativity and whether a painting is worth a man’s life. Characters are often shot (film-wise…) in half-light and shadows that reflect some of the masterpieces they are chasing. John Goodman said he accepted the part because he wanted to ‘play soldier,’ but he brings humour to the movie, and the audience laughed several times, whether at amusingly bad French or the bickering between the members of the team.
You might have thought that there were no more WW2 stories to tell but Clooney and fellow producer Grant Heslov have managed to find one that is very different. No doubt this fictionalised account is not entirely accurate, but it shows an episode of history that is not widely known. It’s only February but The Monuments Men is almost certainly the best art historical adventure film of the year.