Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Monuments Men





George Stout, George Clooney in The Monuments Men







James Rorimer, Matt Damon in The Monuments Men







Rose Valland, Cate Blanchett in The Monuments Men






THE MONUMENTS MEN                 C                    
USA  Germany  (118 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  George Clooney               Official site

A rousing World War II adventure drama that emulates the spirit of 1960’s movies like THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) and THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), though hardly living up to the action level of either one, which were fun WWII war movie that kids loved because they featured all those cool stars with plenty of personality, who personified courage and heroicism, where many didn’t survive to make it home afterwards.  Similarly, George Clooney has assembled a cast of a bunch of his friends, where this has a bit of the party feel of Soderbergh’s OCEAN’S ELEVEN (2001, 2004, 2007) series, where this group clearly has a good time together while making movies.  While the overall premise is interesting, inspired by Robert M Edsel and Bret Witter’s 2009 book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Hunt in History, which documents a small group of American and British (there were no French included) experts on art sent to the Allied front to rescue artworks stolen by the Nazi’s, while Edsel also co-produced THE RAPE OF EUROPA (2006), an important documentary work that explores the Nazi plunder of art treasures from German-occupied territories.  But there are other equally valid historical sources, such as The Monuments Men: Rescuing Art Plundered by the Nazis, an article by Ronald H. Bailey from World War Two magazine, May 2007, The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War, by Lynn H. Nicholas in 1995, and The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War II, by Ilaria Dagnini Brey in 2010.  Hollywood, once again, embellishes the truth, as they did in the Academy Award winning Argo (2012), where the script by George Clooney and Grant Heslov takes major artistic license in its depictions of the mission, giving director George Clooney as Lieutenant George L. Stout, a World War I veteran and art conservationist at Harvard, responsibility for forming the group, passionately making his case to President Roosevelt about saving the value of artwork from Nazi looting and destruction from Allied bombing campaigns, while in reality the formation of what would become Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) was created without Stout’s input.  The idea originated in Europe where British archaeologist and Lieutenant Colonel Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler grew concerned that remnants of ancient Roman ruins in Libya, the Leptis Magna, would be destroyed by tank warfare.  Wheeler was joined by Lieutenant Colonel John Bryan Ward-Perkins and a civil support team to reroute traffic, photograph the damage, post guards, and organize repair efforts at the site, none of which is shown in the movie. 

This action to minimize damage to ancient relics inspired a collective effort by Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to inspect historical shrines and artifacts as part of the war occupation, where the first man sent in, American Captain Mason Hammond, felt the mission was “utterly foolish and a waste of time,” while Clooney and his men remain undaunted by the initial military resistance to their ideas.  Fogg Art Museum’s associate director Paul Sachs is also not depicted in the movie, though he was one of the earliest voices advocating a protection of art during wartime, initially proposing the idea of “special workmen” to implement the protection.  Sachs was appointed to the Roberts Commission, a Presidential commission designed to consolidate earlier efforts with the U.S. Army to help protect Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) in war zones, eventually taken over by the State department after the war.  It was Sachs that selected Lieutenant Stout (George Clooney as Frank Stokes, who would eventually become the curator of the Fogg Museum, the Worcester Art Museum, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museums in Boston), to join an elite officer corps, while also choosing James Rorimer (Matt Damon as James Granger, the eventual director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), his former professor at Harvard, who had already been drafted into the Army.  Rorimer inspected buildings in Normandy, Paris, and the surrounding countryside, eventually discovering an official Nazi looting operation of French private collections that were sent to the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany.  While Rorimer did develop a crucial relationship with Rose Valland (Cate Blanchett as Claire Simone), an employee at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris, the central transport station used by the Nazi’s, who secretly recorded the whereabouts of the artifacts stolen by the Nazi’s in France, who in real life is actually the unsung hero of this entire operation, the movie turns her into a romantic femme fatale love interest for Matt Damon, thereby diminishing her legacy, though she eventually shared her information with Rorimer, who also discovered the Heilbron salt mines which stored art from German museums, something he was able to ascertain without support from the military.  Rather than six or seven men, as depicted in the movie, the group of assigned MFAA officers originally consisted of eleven men, seven Americans and four British, but they lead a team of closer to 350 men and women, most of whom volunteered from 13 different nations, where many had expertise as museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects, and educators.  In the last year of the war, they tracked, located, and in the years that followed returned more than five million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazi’s.  Their role in preserving cultural treasures was without precedent.

The film also distorts the historical accuracy of Hitler’s Nero Decree issued near the end of the war when most of the conquered territories had been liberated or recaptured, but was a desperate attempt to prevent Allied forces from using resources against the Reich during the war.  In the decree, Hitler ordered that “all military, transportation, communications, industrial, and food supply facilities” be destroyed, but it never explicitly included art.  In the movie, however, when Stokes reads the decree aloud, he lists “archives and art” among the things set to be destroyed.  Hitler’s will specified that his art should go to German museums, suggesting he never wanted art to be destroyed, though the Nazi’s had a way of condemning certain “degenerate” works, either Jewish or Impressionist for example, which they burned by the thousands.  The prized 12-panel Ghent Altarpiece depicted in the film, a Flemish 15th century masterpiece and one of the first major oil paintings, described as the ultimate Catholic artifact, was beloved by Hitler as an example of “Aryan genius,” while Michelangelo's white marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child on display in Bruges, created around 1504, is the only sculpture of Michelangelo's outside of Italy.  There was no mention, by the way, of the more than 50,000 artifacts stolen from The National Museum of Baghdad during the first days of the American occupation of Iraq during the 2003 invasion, containing relics of past civilizations dating back 5,000 years, and the largest collection of archeological and historical artifacts in the entire Middle East.  This little footnote in history might have brought home the notion that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, as history has shown through modern acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide that in a few short years, all physical and cultural evidence of targeted groups can be wiped away and completely destroyed, where Stokes can be heard saying “If you destroy their achievements and their history, it’s like they never existed.”  So while the intent of the movie is noble, where Hitler, in what is perceived as “the greatest theft in history,” stole more than 5 million cultural objects, what we have in this Hollywood version is filled with stereotypes and cliché’s, featuring a good old boy’s portrayal of American ingenuity and know-how, where if you believe this version, it was these seven guys that actually ended the war by discovering Germany’s hidden gold reserves, as they were tucked away in mine shafts along with all the stolen works of art.  The film also recalls John Frankenheimer’s THE TRAIN (1964), a Black and White historical thriller featuring a French resistance stationmaster (Burt Lancaster) pitted against an art-obsessed Nazi officer (Paul Scofield) trying to get a train filled with stolen art into Germany.  In contrast, this film pales by comparison, offering a meandering pace, an indifference to history, and a lack of dramatic conflict throughout, where the stellar cast barely ever engages one another, but are seen off on their own explorations, where it simply feels like an imitation of better films that were made during the 60’s.  One hopes it is not these inaccurate and streamlined Hollywood Cliff Notes version of history that people remember instead of the real individuals involved who actually made history, because as viewers we deserve better, especially from someone as intelligent and talented as this director, where it wouldn’t hurt if Hollywood historical movies “inspired by real events” actually told the truth for a change, as their value is diminished otherwise.   

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