The Monuments Men is unapologetically based on a true story. It takes incidents from the experiences of the real-life men who served in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section during World War II and uses them to craft a story that makes a broad point about the importance of protecting culture during wartime.
All the characters in the movie have definite connections to real people, but director George Clooney (and his co-writer/co-producer Grant Heslov) have changed enough details and shuffled the chronology enough that they've given everyone a new name so there's no confusion about the movie's intentions.
It's a movie loaded with movie stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville all get their star turns saving art as the Allies retake France and invade Germany.
If you accept the premise that art and culture are worth saving, then the Monuments Men are heroes of World War II. The Monuments Men tells a story that most never knew and tells it in a way that's far more connected to reality than The Train, the 1964 Burt Lancaster action picture about stopping the Nazis from leaving Paris with a trainload of paintings. That one plays more like Die Hard and has a far more casual connection to historical reality.
George Clooney is unapologetic about his desire to make an entertaining movie.
We liked the story. We were not all that familiar with the actual story, which is rare for a World War II film. Usually, you think you know all the stories. And we wanted it to be accessible. We liked all those John Sturges films and thought of it as a mix between Kelly's Heroes and The Train. We wanted to talk about a very serious subject that’s ongoing still and also wanted to make it entertaining.
The movie does a great job of exposing the sheer volume of stolen art. The Monuments Men located a large amount of that art and a lot of those works were returned to their rightful owners, but some paintings are still missing and the search is ongoing. Ownership is sometimes difficult to prove and the Soviets had a different notion about what to do with recovered art than the other Allied nations.
There are so many elements of it that are tricky. There is a lot of this art that has been found in other peoples' homes or museums. And some of it has been repatriated back. It's a long process and it's not particularly easy.
In Russia, there was – there is a generation that lost 25,000,000 people and believe that to the victor goes the spoils. Generationally it seems to be getting more towards returning art to the rightful owners. Sometimes it's tricky because it's very hard to raise sympathy for someone named Rothschild, who had the largest private collection, because people think, well, they're pretty wealthy and that’s not such a big deal. Although, of course, you want it to be returned.
It's a long process. It is a continuing process. And quite honestly it's also about looking at the loss of artifacts and art that’s going on in Syria right now. It's understanding how important this culture is to each of these countries and trying to find a way to get them back. We hope the movie raises some awareness and opens up some discussions.
There's art that was recently found in Germany, about a billion and a half dollars worth of art. Some of that art was actually art that was found by the Monuments Men and given to the people who were supposedly going to give it back to the original owners and then didn’t. They kept it. It looks like that art is finally going to get repatriated as time goes on, and that’s a good thing.
I just got a message from Richard Stengel, who used to run Time magazine, who's working at the State Department right now on just those type of things. We’ve done poor job at protecting the art at times, but there seems to be a stronger effort now.
I think we've understood the importance of this issue. In the script, we wrote a scene where we say, “if you take their culture away, you can kill them. You can murder their families, but if you take away their culture, that’s when the society breaks down. We wrote it based on the time I spent going through these villages in the Sudan and in Darfur, where it wasn’t enough that they killed them and they killed their children, they had to destroy the things that they created by generations before. You had to destroy what made the village theirs. And that was as important as the raping and the murdering of these families.
We started to understand how when we didn’t protect the art at the beginning of the war in Iraq and we didn’t protect those museums and those artifacts. A lot of those things are lost forever and that can actually affect a community in a very deep way. I think we learned that lesson again. We keep relearning how important those things are, how important these pieces are. You know, what are you fighting for if it's not for your culture and your life?
It’s a hard thing when you're doing a movie and say, “We're going to write a script about saving art.” It doesn’t really sound all that fun, so you have to remind people that what we're talking about isn't just these paintings on a wall that some people can look at and understand and some can't, but it's also about culture. It is about these monuments and it is about these sculptures, but it's also just about the fabric of our culture. And mankind's way of recording history. That’s why I think the people at the State Department are working very hard at this.
We changed the names of the characters because we wanted to give some of them some flaws for entertainment purposes. So you don’t want to take somebody who is real and heroic and give them a drinking problem. It's not really fair to do. So we changed the names because we wanted to be able to play with the story.
But they're all based on real men. Now, there were a hundred of them, eventually by the time the war ended. They went through Italy and did the same thing, but they're based on real people.
The Monuments Men plays like a cross between The Great Escape and the Clooney/Damon remake of Ocean's Eleven. The real story was so complicated and the timeline so fractured that it was a challenge to distill the highlights into Robert Edsel's book. It's the kind of broad-appeal movie that will have a long life after it leaves theaters, one that will almost certainly be in endless rotation on USA or TNT or FX when it's not showing up at the top of your Netflix recommendations list.