The Second World War was one of the most important conflicts in human history. It was a war that was fought to stop the tyranny of fascism, and perhaps one of the few examples of one side of a war representing total evil, and one side representing total good. Devastating during all its six years, the war left cities in ruins, entire populations destroyed, and nations torn apart or occupied. Films and television series cover this war from top to bottom, and while the genre of films covering this period have largely vanished, George Clooney’s 2014 film The Monuments Men brings back the subject in full force. Covering the brief history of the real-life Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program during the war, this film explores the monumental task of finding and preserving Europe’s famous and unknown works of art, with the eventual goal of returning them to their rightful owners to help rebuild the continent after the war.
Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett, this all-star cast brings to life unique characters which bring a lighthearted feel to one of the most tragic events in human history. The film begins with Clooney’s Frank Stokes giving a presentation to President Franklin Roosevelt on the dire state of Europe’s historic artwork, and asks him to commission a group of art historians and others in the field of fine art to track down and return the pieces Hitler’s Germany has plundered. Assembling a team of intelligent and quirky artists, historians, and architects, including Matt Damon’s James Granger, Bill Murray’s Richard Campbell, and John Goodman’s Walter Garfield, they set out shortly after D-Day to join the Allied forces in Europe during the waning days of the Second World War. They are helped by Cate Blanchett’s Claire Simone, an accused collaborator and museum curator who worked to track down where the Nazis were taking Europe’s art.
Interspersed with scenes of trotting around France, Belgium, and Germany, as well as the Nazis retreating with the artwork, the film brings out the best of old fashioned war films. While the seriousness and tragedy of war is highlighted—the team losing a few men—it is filled with the lightheartedness, humor, and sense of adventure that made films such as The Great Escape, Patton, and The Longest Day, all backed up by the music from Alexandre Desplat, whose score is catchy, exciting, and adventurous. The film also has heart, and while the main objective was to showcase the effort to save Europe’s artwork, the characters truly stole the show. In pairing up the characters as they travel to different areas on the front, it created a dynamic between the cast that was unique and fun to watch. In perhaps the most heartfelt moment, Bob Balaban’s Preston Savitz—who did not get along with Bill Murray’s Richard Campbell—plays Campbell’s record of his grandchildren singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” under the backdrop of the Battle of the Bulge.
While the film at times carries on jokes a little too far and did not have enough time to explore all the unique and likable characters, it was to me one of the best films depicting the Second World War since Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Modern war films—while accurate—lack the reasons why people are fighting in the first place. These characters were fighting to save the legacy left behind by the countries that were under occupation, and to challenge the hubris of Adolf Hitler and stop his efforts to steal these historic works of art. The film also explores areas of Europe not often looked at during films of this period, from a liberated Paris to a last-minute rush to stop the Soviets from taking valuable artwork near the end. Even what few actual villains there are in this film do get their comeuppance, but their presence is rare as the attention is mostly with our heroes.
The Monuments Men successfully brings to life a largely unknown event in the history of the Second World War, and with its all-star cast creates characters which are endearing and fascinating. Popular actors such as John Goodman and Bill Murray steal with their performances, and George Clooney’s depiction of a wartime adventure brings the viewer back to a time when most war movies were about heroism and fighting for a cause rather than the pessimism and realism we see in movies today. Although in many ways it simplifies the actual efforts of the Monument’s Men, it is a good introduction to an unusual aspect of the Second World War. Once viewing the film, reading Robert M. Edsel’s and Bret Witter’s The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History will help to fill in many of the gaps, and you will earn a greater appreciation for these efforts.