Not long before Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, during World War II, Adolf Hitler issued the “Demolitions on Reich Territory Decree,” which ultimately was known as the “Nero Decree.” The purpose of the order was to ensure the destruction of anything the Allies could use as they made their way into Germany.
In part the “Nero Decree” stated, “The enemy will leave us nothing but scorched earth when he withdraws, without paying the slightest regard to the population.”
Hitler’s order for mass destruction included everything from military installations to valuable objects of art. Thus the Nazis confiscated many invaluable art treasures that Hitler would either keep for himself or destroy. When various art collectors and connoisseurs got wind that Hitler intended to rob the world of its precious treasures, they knew drastic measures must be taken. Enter the Monuments Men.
The remarkable story of these incredibly brave men is chronicled in the book titled “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” published in 2009 by Robert M. Edsel. And as you would expect, whenever a story as fascinating as this one comes along, it’s only a matter of time until Hollywood snatches it up.
The good news is that “The Monuments Men” is now a major motion picture, but the not so good news is that despite an impressive ensemble cast, the film doesn’t do the story or its heroes justice. In addition to co-writing the screenplay, George Clooney directed and stars in the movie, which is disappointing to say the least.
Although the film is based upon the true story, the names of the major characters have been changed, and as the movie begins, we meet Frank Stokes (Clooney), an art historian working in art restoration at the famous Fogg Museum. Stokes has obtained FDR’s permission to lead a small team to Germany in an attempt to prevent the loss of various art treasures.
Stokes’ unlikely band of heroes comprises the following: John Goodman as Sgt. Walter Garfield, based upon Walter Kirtland Hancock, who was an American sculptor and teacher; Bob Balaban as Pvt. Preston Savitz, based on Lincoln Edward Kirstein, who was an American writer and art connoisseur from New York; Bill Murray as Sgt. Richard Campbell, based on Robert K. Posey, who was a noted architect; Matt Damon as Lt. James Granger, based on James Rorimer, had been the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Hugh Bonneville as Lt. Donald Jeffries, based on Ronald E. Balfour, who was a history scholar from England; and Jean Dujardin as Lt. Jacques Jaujard, who was the director of the French National Museums when the Nazis occupied France.
Although these guys weren’t soldiers, they posed as such and often preceded their own troops to places so they could identify sites that shouldn’t be destroyed. With their dedication and bravery (Two of them died.) they managed to preserve some of the world’s greatest artworks.
What they did obviously was extremely dangerous, but the film doesn’t succeed in creating any sense of tension or suspense. In fact, it often drags in places, and so what should have been an exciting drama turns out to be a film so laboriously slow in spots that it’s difficult to sit through. Hell, this was Nazi Germany! Give me some white-knuckled encounters with Hitler’s finest. Give me some real intrigue.
And with a cast this talented, even the acting wasn’t anything to brag about with the possible exception of Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett, who portrays Claire Simone, based Rose Valland, a French art historian who knew where many of the art objects were hidden. Blanchett is always terrific, and her work in this film is no exception. The story is set primarily within the 11 months between the Normandy Invasion and V-E Day, and in the production notes Blanchett recounted what makes the story such a great one.
“This story opens up the Second World War in a way that gives you a different perspective on it. These men were spurred on by a higher ideal. So many of the works that we take for granted in the great museums of the world were returned by this band of men; it was a near impossible task. Absurd, in a way: non-military men going to the front lines and asking generals to stop bombing a certain church or area to save a window, or a sculpture or mural. You wonder how they were able to save anything at all. It’s an extraordinary, selfless thing that they did, done to preserve history.”
Also in the production notes, Damon underscored what Blanchett said.
“I literally knew nothing about this story, which is why I was so surprised to find out it was real. It’s a terrific story. Ultimately, this is a movie about people who are willing to sacrifice everything to save what is the very best of us, of humanity — to go after that art and try to rescue it, to save it, to protect it and preserve it. Art is the soul of society, and it represents the very best things that we have achieved. To destroy that is to obliterate something irreplaceable.”
Despite all his Oscar nominations, I still fail to see what is so special about Clooney both as an actor and a director. I think every role he plays on the big screen is just a reinvention of his part as Dr. Doug Ross on TV’s “ER,” and thus his range is about as broad as the head of a pin. However, in the production notes he did offer some interesting insight into the story.
“Though the Monuments Men had the upport of FDR and General Eisenhower, they did face a challenge in embedding themselves in the field. Eisenhower was very keen on the idea. He wanted to make sure that there was something left when the war was over, and the war was going to be over very soon. It was something he came to, after Allied bombing destroyed an ancient abbey that really didn’t need to be destroyed. So it was important not just to protect the art from the Nazis, but from the Allies’ own exploits as they pushed toward the end of the war. The Allies were blowing everything up, so they had this realization that culture can be destroyed — not just by the Germans, but by us.”
Despite the fact that the Monuments Men were under intense time constraints to get their job done, the film fails to convey any real sense of urgency on their part, and it just plods ponderously along with very little excitement to make it interesting. Also, many of the scenes are shot in such subdued lighting that it was sometimes difficult to follow what limited action there was.
When I first saw the trailers for this film, I thought it had real possibilities, but it turned out to be mediocre at best, and it earns a surprisingly unimpressive five. It’s hard to believe Clooney could make such an unremarkable film about a truly intriguing story, but he managed to do it. Thus, “The Monuments Men” is a direct reflection of his work as an actor – monumentally boring.