I will admit it: I’m a little obsessed with World War Two. I have some good reasons for it (I grew up in France and all of my father’s side of the family was affected by the war, some in dramatic ways) and some not-as-good reasons (it makes for great historical fiction, one of the genres in which I write). But in any case, as soon as I heard about this movie being made, I couldn’t wait to see it. I hadn’t seen its predecessor, The Train, so didn’t have a basis for comparison (as David Denby does in a not-very-flattering way in The New Yorker); and I was stoked.
My friend Michelle shook her head. “It can’t possibly live up to your expectations,” she said. And yet it did.
The Monuments Men is taken from Robert Edsel’s The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History and tells the story of a small group of soldier-scholars tasked toward the end of the war to recover public and private art—cultural treasures—stolen by the German Army and the SS, to return art to its owners whenever possible, and to restore damaged artwork. This program did exist (it was officially called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Group), and you can learn more about it by visiting the Monuments Men Foundation.
It seemed to be an impossible mission: with the art trapped behind enemy lines, and with the German army under orders to destroy everything as the Reich fell, how could these men—seven museum directors, curators, and art historians—hope to save any of it? The miracle is that they did. And their work lives on through the Foundation which continues to recover still-missing objects.
Does the movie have flaws? Many, if you were to believe a lot of the reviews out there; but for sheer entertainment, an easy-to-swallow history lesson, and an inspiring story, I don’t think that you can beat it. The cast is impressive, featuring Matt Damon as an art restorer, Bill Murray as a Chicago architect, John Goodman as a sculptor, Jean Dujardin as a French painting instructor, Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham, anyone?) as a British museum head, and Bob Balaban as a theatre impresario… an unlikely group of people to become heroes. Cate Blanchett joins the cast to play a Parisian “collaborator” and assistant curator from the Jeu de Paume national gallery who knows where much of the stolen artwork is but won’t tell the Allies because she fears that they won’t return it to France.
Two of the crew will die in their attempt to save the world’s priceless cultural heritage, thus bringing into play the central question of the film: is priceless indeed the right word for these treasures? Is art—no matter how great—worth the loss of human life? The movie purports to find the answer, leaving it up to the viewer to see if they agree.
Oh, and a final note: don’t get too upset about the Germans looting Europe’s oldest and most valuable treasures: there is nothing new under the sun, and Americans watching the movie would do well to remember the far more recent looting of Baghdad’s own priceless cultural art treasures—by U.S. troops.