The Monuments Men
Special to The History Place
Some years ago Time Magazine featured George Clooney on its cover, dubbing him the last of great Hollywood stars in the grand tradition of Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. Indeed, tradition seems to be Clooney’s hallmark, as he moves into middle age. Tinsel Town’s perennially most eligible bachelor has finally married. You can’t get more traditional than that.
His latest foray into film making also feels filled with tradition. By that I mean that The Monuments Men, which Clooney co-wrote and directed, looks and feels like a “war film” from the Fifties or Sixties. And, ala The Dirty Dozen, the movie features a “star studded” cast: Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, and Clooney himself, supported by several top-notch character actors you’ll recognize immediately.
And, like those WWII movies that our veteran-dads took us to see on Saturday afternoons in the local movie house, The Monuments Men is a stitching together of alternately heart-warming, humorous, and heroically sad scenes that manage to march us from point A to point Z in just under two hours.
Don’t misunderstand me. The Monuments Men isn’t a “bad” film. It’s well-acted, competently directed and edited, and tells a fascinating and important story, largely neglected until now. The plot is based on a non-fiction book by the same name. As the Allies invaded first Italy and then France, a group of art museum directors, art critics and artists was organized to (as we might say today) be embedded in the advancing armies. Their task was to identify and, if possible, rescue the great art works of Europe, which the Nazis were intent on either expropriating or expunging.
Wisely, Clooney focuses on one succinct, but extremely important, part of this effort. He leads his crew onto the Normandy beaches, following close behind the Allied vanguard. Matt Damon’s character is assigned to Paris, where he fills his hours alternately flirting with and cajoling Cate Blanchett’s French-Resistance spy, who has the inside track on where the SS has shipped many of the Louvre’s treasures. Blanchett’s Claire Simone is drawn to Damon’s James Granger, but distrusts the American liberators, who she fears will simply re-expropriate the art of France for stateside museums such as Granger’s. The slow maturation of a trusting relationship between the two is probably the most engaging aspect of the movie.
Meanwhile, Murray, Goodman, Clooney and their colleagues engage in the kind of amusing banter and misadventures that we’ve seen in literally dozens of Audie Murphy, John Wayne, and Lee Marvin movies in days of yore. And, as with these predecessor productions, the buddy-film fun is punctuated by teary scenes in which one or another of the loveable fellows falls to Nazi bullets, dying, of course, with a stiff upper lip.
As I say, this is a competently produced film that tells an important WWII story that you may not have known, even if this episode of U.S. history is your passion or forte. If the topic interests you, as it does me, don’t let Clooney’s decision to make it a “homage” to the “war movies” of a bygone era keep you away from it.
Rated PG-13 for images of war violence and smoking.
Dr. Jim Castagnera is a Philadelphia lawyer, consultant and writer, whose webpage is https://jamescastagnera.wordpress.com/. His most recent book is Handbook for Student Law for Higher Education Administrators (Revised Edition 2014).