Historian at the Movies: The Monuments Men reviewed

As part of our Historian at the Movies series, Dr Nigel Pollard from Swansea University reviews The Monuments Men, a true-story film about Allied officers charged with saving historic artefacts in the Second World War

The Monuments Men © Columbia Pictures in association with 20th Century Fox

Q: Did you enjoy the film?

A: Yes, it was a fairly entertaining movie, but not a great one. George Clooney (who also directed and co-wrote the film) plays a middle-aged academic commissioned into the US Army as a lieutenant to lead a special unit of seven museum curators, scholars and sculptors established to safeguard and recover art treasures in wartime Europe.

They follow the conflict from Normandy to Austria, in search of the Ghent Altarpiece (a large multi-panel 15th-century painting by the van Eyck brothers), and the Madonna of Bruges (a Michelangelo sculpture), looted by retreating Nazis for display in a museum planned for Hitler’s childhood home town of Linz in Austria.

It draws on diverse film genres, including heist/caper movies like Ocean’s Eleven, war films such as Saving Private Ryan, TV series such as Band of Brothers, and even the cinematic versions of Dan Brown novels like The Da Vinci Code.

The tone is fairly light-hearted, and derives much of its humour from the unsuitability of these ‘Monuments Men’ for wartime service, and from the Odd Couple interactions of their diverse pairings. Bill Murray and Bob Balaban are particularly good value in that respect.

There are some national stereotypes (French, but also German and British), and some romantic flirtation (also French). Moments of action, personal tragedies and regular reminders of the fate of Jews in wartime Europe provide sobering counterpoints to the humour, and the action is driven forward by the need to find the looted art before it’s destroyed, and before Soviet troops get to it.

Q: Was the film historically accurate?

A: Not really. There’s a kernel of history there, but The Monuments Men plays fast and loose with it in ways that are probably necessary to make the story work as a film, but the viewer ends up with a fairly confused notion of what the organisation was, and what it achieved.

The film is based very loosely on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter, which is about some of the real wartime activities of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives programme (MFAA). The characters in the film are fictional ones, although some (Clooney, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett) are just about recognisable as historical figures from the book.

The real organisation was never a big one (a few dozen officers at most), but the film reduces it to just seven men to personalise the hunt for the looted art: five Americans, one British officer (Hugh Bonneville) and a Free French officer, marginalising the British role in the establishment of the organisation.

This is presented as set up at Clooney’s initiative after the bombing of Monte Cassino (so, after February 1944). In fact, its origins actually went back to British efforts in Libya in 1942, and it already existed (albeit with teething troubles) when the Allies invaded Sicily in July 1943.

Much of its actual role related to safeguarding sites in Allied-occupied areas, advising Allied air and ground forces on how to avoid damage to cultural sites in war zones, and first-aid conservation of damaged structures – but these tasks get short shrift in the film, which focuses instead on the more exciting hunt for the looted artworks.

Q: What did the film get right?

A: Those works of art were real, and do form the focus of the book, even if Clooney’s character’s description of the Ghent Altarpiece as “the defining monument of the Catholic church” is hyperbole.

Also, the reality of MFAA service was fairly dangerous for non-combat duty, and the two fatalities in the film echo the two wartime losses in the real organisation (including the British scholar Ronald Balfour), even if they are proportionately higher in the seven-man outfit depicted in the film.

And the aims of the film are honourable enough – to celebrate the memory of the real ‘Monuments Men’, and to remind us (as if we need reminding in the face of recent events in Syria, Mali and Egypt) that culture too is one of the many victims of war and civil conflict.

Q: What did it miss?

A: Clooney ratchets up the danger level and the drama by sending some characters (played by Damon and Bonneville) on missions behind enemy lines that are deeply implausible, and occupied France looks suspiciously like the English countryside.

Likewise, while the looted art depositories in Germany and Austria entered by the film’s Monuments Men were real enough, the characters’ roles in their discovery are exaggerated. Meanwhile, the imminent arrival of Soviet occupation forces at Altaussee, requiring the hasty evacuation of the recovered art by our heroes, is purely a plot device to enhance the dramatic tension.

The plot devices and stereotypes are fairly obvious, and the lightweight humorous tone sometimes grates when dealing with a subject that potentially could be handled in a more serious and dramatic manner.

The history is inevitably distorted to make it work as a film, and a historically inclined viewer should read The Monuments Men book, Lynn Nicholas’ The Rape of Europa, or Ilaria Dagnini Brey’s The Venus Fixers instead.

How many stars (out of 5) would you award the film in terms of a) entertainment and b) its historical accuracy?

Entertainment ****
Historical accuracy **

You can read about the real Allied officers who inspired the film in the February issue of BBC History Magazine - on sale now. To read the magazine digitally, click here.

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