Ghent Altarpiece: Hubert and Jan Van Eyck; Source: Wikipedia Commons
I’m not sure what I expected from ‘The Monuments Men’ but when I heard it was based on a real story about the team commissioned to save European artworks from the Nazis, I was hoping for something like the wonderful 1960s movie, ‘The Train’ featuring Burt Lancaster and Paul Schofield. Well, this isn’t ‘The Train’. In fact, at times it’s more like ‘Oceans Eleven’ - or in this case, ‘Oceans Seven’ - meets World War II.
But despite its flaws, I enjoyed 'The Monuments Men.’ It’s an entertaining movie which also delivers a history lesson, albeit Hollywood-style. There’s an interesting cast led by George Clooney (also the director), who, to my eyes at least, bears an uncanny resemblance to 1940s heart-throb Robert Taylor but is thankfully a far better actor. John Goodman literally grounds the film with his tree-trunk physique and hang-dog face which can speak a thousand words without uttering a single one. The ubiquitous Cate Blanchett (when does she sleep?) does a fine job as the art curator at the Jeu de Paume, desperate to keep the collection safe and battling Goering’s underling, Viktor Stahl. Of all the characters in the film, I found him the most interesting.
As an artist, I like any movie which has art at its heart, and this one features the Ghent altarpiece which happens to one of the most beautiful works of art ever created. But it’s not just a story about saving one particular work. We’re shown how the Nazis went about stealing art, both private and public, on a massive scale. Unfortunately, in attempting to cover this entire story in two hours, ‘The Monuments Men’ sometimes loses its focus and veers towards the superficial.
On the historical front, I don’t mind a bit of artistic licence in telling a true story as long as the framework is essentially accurate. This film certainly has an authentic 1940s feel about it and the cinematography is glorious. However there are problems with the dialogue. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know I have a ‘thing’ about linguistic anachronisms – a paranoia about committing them and a penchant for finding them. It really annoys me that in a film with a multi-million-dollar budget, they couldn’t employ someone to check that the language was right. At one point George Clooney says that his team was ‘tasked’ to undertake the mission. Nobody used ‘task’ as a verb back then. And during a conversation with Hugh Bonneville's character, a Brit who has a sorry record with women and booze, Clooney says that everyone is ‘screwed up at some level’. Surely this is sixties psycho-babble, not 1940s conversation.
For me, one of the most moving moments in the film is Matt Damon’s attempt to return a family portrait to the home of a Jewish family from whom it was stolen. Another poignant scene is the cameo appearance by George Clooney’s real-life father. I don’t want to give too much away here so I’ll just say that you should watch the credits and everything will make sense. I also liked the black-and-white photographs of the actual Monuments Men which are shown at the end.
In summary, if you want the serious story about the MFAA*, get hold of the book that inspired the film, Robert M. Edsel’s ‘The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History’. But don’t dismiss this film – it’s entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking. I just wish it hadn’t tried to do so much.
*Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives programme
March 23, 2014