Zim’s Note: I saw the movie the second weekend it was released in theaters. I wrote this post and wanted to wait until I finished the book. The idea was to do a big Monument Men post that would include the WWII history, my thoughts on the book and then review the movie. I realized, while writing up the history portion, the post would be extremely long. Instead, I’m going to post them all individually.
SPOILERS! Do not read if you plan on seeing the movie. Consider yourself warned!
“…our poetic license [was] we wanted to let these guys have some flaws and have some fun. … Listen, the good news is, 80 percent of the story is still completely true and accurate, and almost all of the scenes happened. Sometimes they happened with other characters, sometimes it happened in smaller dimension. But that’s moviemaking.”
-George Clooney (Entertainment Weekly, August 12, 2013)
“We gave the characters fictional names and identities because for storytelling purposes we wanted to show them with human flaws that the real heroes didn’t have. For instance, it wouldn’t have been fair to portray Balfour himself as an alcoholic because he wasn’t. But by constructing a fictional character – Jeffries – we were able to add emotion and poignancy. That’s not really fair to do…but they were all based on real men.”
– George Clooney (Daily Mail, February 14, 2014)
I wanted to see “The Monuments Men” for months. Even back when it was scheduled to be released in December before being moved to February. I planned to be the first in line. Not because the lineup included Clooney, Damon or Goodman (I love me some Goodman – can he do ANYTHING wrong?!) but because the film was about World War II – a topic you all know is near and dear to History By Zim. I was a little worried by the trailer that the film was going to be more Hollywood puff than historically accurate but I was looking forward to it nevertheless. Of course, when the time came and the movie was released, I was not first in line. I was home sick. After a week of rest and lemon tea, my sister and I finally made our way to the theater. Here are my thoughts on The Monuments Men.
The movie is based off of Robert M. Edsel’s 2009 book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. It follows the true story of the Nazi looting and the men and women who saved the arts during World War II. The ‘Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives’ (MFAA) program was established in the United States in 1943. Its purpose was to protect important buildings, trace looted art objects and inventory Nazi-seized property and, ultimately, to urge the return of objects to their rightful owners and countries. These men and women, popularly known as Monuments Men, had big assignments in dangerous war-torn areas – all for the sake of preserving the past for the future. The Monuments Men focuses on a handful of these MFAA officers from the program’s inception, to the men entering Europe shortly after the Normandy Invasion and, finally, their discovery of multiple treasure troves. It was written, produced and directed by George Clooney and the ensemble cast includes Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett.
It is always great to see Hollywood taking an interest in history – even if the characters are only loosely based on real people. Currently, superheros, sequels and raunchy comedies tend to be the norm. While there is nothing wrong with that, every now and then a change-up is nice. I will be honest, the history-lover in me gets giddy at the mention of a history movie – especially a World War II one. What can I say?! I’m a history nerd!
The history of the Monuments Men is fascinating. As was Edsel’s book. If anything, this movie sheds a light on these courageous men and women. Perhaps it compelled people to Google them or to pick up Edsel’s book (or another one about the topic) and become interested in these little known stories – the stories that miss the textbooks. There was a wonderful intent by Clooney and gang to transport the audience to the 1940s. The design element, from costumes to props, was quite good. The ensemble list includes remarkable actors that, I’m sure, helped to put ‘butts in chairs.’
Lt. Donald Jeffries’ Character (Hugh Bonneville)
I completely understand that in trying to appeal to the mass audience some things have to be polished and set to music. But why say that these men are based on real people and not try to stay somewhat true to the real person? Lt. Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) has issues. Alcohol to be exact. From the different character dialogues, it seems that Lt. Donald Jeffries’ alcohol problem was, at one time, very debilitating and worrisome for those around him. However, it has gotten better by the time Lt. Frank Stokes (George Clooney) goes out on a limb and recruits Lt. Donald Jeffries – even when other Monuments Men are skeptical. This is all fine and dandy if Lt. Donald Jeffries was a completely fictional person. But he is not.
Loosely based on real Monuments Man Ronald E. Balfour, Lt. Donald Jeffries and his real-life inspiration only have one major thing in common – they both were killed during World War II. Lt. Donald Jeffries is killed while trying to save Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges. While Ronald E. Balfour was the first to report that the Nazis took the famous marble statue, he did not die protecting it. In actuality, he was killed in Clèves, Germany while he and others were evacuating sculpture from the damaged church. By all accounts I have found, Ronald Balfour did not have a drinking problem.
The screenwriters attempted to add depth to Lt. Donald Jeffries. What audience does not root for a man trying to overcome his demons and prove to his family he is a changed man? Then, in an attempt to play our heartstrings like a fiddle, have the said guy die a heroic death. Again, this is fine and dandy IF the character was NOT based on a real person who DID NOT have a drinking problem! Doesn’t Ronald Balfour already have enough depth just in the fact that he was only one of two Monuments Men who were killed protecting the arts and history?! I was both floored and disappointed. Ronald Balfour deserved his story told.
Lt. James Granger & Clair Simone’s Relationship
Being alone in German-occupied France was a lonely place for person – especially if that person was part of the French Resistance. I am not in anyway disputing that. However, I was a bit perturbed that the film focused so much on Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) and her, not so subtle, wish to have more than a professional relationship with Lt. James Granger (Matt Damon). She was quite obvious and vocal to James Granger about it even after he emphatically stated that he was married. This undermined the audience’s views about Claire Simone whether the screenwriters realized it or not. It put Clarie Simone in the category of “Lonely White Girl” instead of courageous heroine who did what she did because it was for the greater good not because she was ‘crushing’ on a boy. Some movie goers were probably able to see past that, some perhaps were not. Yes, women are moved by their emotions (as are men) but is there not a way they can be portrayed rather than man-crazed, pitiful and lonely?!
“Is it really that big of a deal?” is a question you may be thinking. Yes. It is a big deal. I take personal offense not just as a woman but I take offense because I know the amazing story of Rose Valland, the woman who Claire Simone was loosely based on. She risked her life for at least four years before James Roimer (the man who Lt. James Granger is loosely based on) came on the scene. Rose Valland was the only employee at the Jeu De Paume Museum in Paris that the Nazis allowed to continue to work while the ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg – the organization dedicated to appropriating cultural property) commandeered the museum. They used the museum as the headquarters and a place to store the paintings and other artifacts stolen from private French collections – mainly those belonging to Jewish collectors. Rose Valland knew German, something the Nazis did not know. They spoke freely around her thinking she did not understand them. She used her place at the museum to record the stolen art and objects. Additionally, through her loyal and simple demeanor, she tracked the objects by information she learned from drivers, guards and packers. Rose Valland passed on what she knew to the French Resistance. Once James Rorimer came to Paris in December 1944, she gave him the details of the Nazi looting. Her information led the Monuments Men to the castle of Neuschwanstein which held artwork taken from Jewish collectors in Paris. Rose Valland’s detailed notes also state who the art belonged to so that it could be returned. It is estimated that she helped to save thousands of works of art. So yeah, it kinda is a big deal.
Overall, I left the movie theater thinking The Monuments Men was an ‘okay’ atttempt. Not quite the caliber I hoped it would be but it was not a total disaster. George Clooney had good intentions but failed on the delivery. For his acting, Clooney seemed, well, like Clooney but with a World War II uniform and mustache. I have seen him transform into amazing characters before (i.e. Syriana and The Descendants) and his role in The Monuments Men seemed a bit flat. The other actors held up their roles quite well based upon the script. I found the movie to be overly glossy, I little too ‘Hollywoodized’ for my likening. At times it felt like a bunch of frat guys on a crazy road trip/treasure hunt. They would be laughing and carrying on, then a moment later, they would walk by a bunch of white crosses on the beaches of Normandy or literally into a fire fight and it was suddenly somber. You (and them) would be reminded that they are actually in a war zone.
It was also hard to see past the artistic license taken in how the characters were loosely basing real people. However, in Clooney’s defense, the book’s author was seemingly in agreement with giving leeway with the actual individual stories. “I didn’t want the film to be so historically accurate that it would lack a wider appeal and only 40 people would go and see it,” adds Robert Edsel. “Obviously, there have to be some adjustments, be it to characters, or to timelines or to the actual record.” One other glaring difference between the book and movie was the fact that they traveled together in the movie (which I understood more so then the changes with the individual stories). “The Monuments Men were spread so thin and there were so few of them on the front lines, that they weren’t often together, but you can’t make a film with about eight different vignettes which never converge,” Edsel stated. “However, the overarching principles of the story are absolutely intact and all the extraordinary events that you see in the film did happen in some form or fashion during the war.”
Truthfully, I will probably buy it when it comes out – not because I am a hypocrite. But because I enjoyed parts of it. My points of contentions were, for the most part, smaller than the whole. When we left the movie theater, my sister had nothing but positive things to say about it. When I asked my parents, who saw it on a different night, they emphatically agreed. It seemed that Clooney and Edsel were successful in appealing to the mass audience but, like most historical movies, historians or those interested in the topic will be a bit let down. In the end it was a decent movie based on real people that, hopefully, will shine a light on these unsung heroes. It’s intentions were good and, with Hollywood, that is really all you can ask for, right?!