IF EVER there were the right ingredients for making a great film, then The Monuments Men had it all: a unique story, a stellar cast, fantastic settings and a moral message. Add to the mix George Clooney as co-writer, director and star, and it was bound to be good. I certainly had high hopes before the screening.
The film was billed as a band of brothers-style Second World War epic based on the “biggest treasure hunt and art heist in history”. But, sadly, it doesn’t quite hit the mark. The main problem is the tone of the film. With little action and occasional moments of comedy, the film comes across as more Dad’s Army or ‘Allo ‘Allo, at times, than the Guns of Navarone.
It doesn’t help that there is limited character development and the scenes are oddly put together. A dramatic moment will begin to build up then suddenly stop as the action is cut to an unrelated scene.
The Monuments Men, which is based on a book of the same name by Robert Edsel, is a little known true story about an Army unit of art experts who went behind enemy lines towards the end of the Second World War. Their mission was to find and rescue five million pieces of art stolen by the Nazis, and return them to their rightful owners or surviving kin .
The mainly middle-aged out-of-shape museum directors, architects and art historians had to race across Europe to stop Hitler destroying 1,000 years of culture and the Russians from stealing it. Some died in the process. There were more than 300 volunteers from America and the UK in the original Army unit, which was part of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives programme. Clooney concentrates on just seven characters who are loosely based on some of those men.
They are played by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin and Dimitri Leonidas.
The inspiration for Clooney’s character Lt Frank Stokes, was George Stout, who was an art historian at The Fogg Museum, Harvard’s oldest art museum, in America. In 1943 he signed-up to join the Army unit. In the film, Stokes persuades US President Franklin D Roosevelt to send a unit to Europe to try to rescue the artwork. He argues that victory will have little meaning if the art treasures are lost either in combat or looted.
As he explains: “You can try to wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they will still find some way to come back. But if you destroy their history, destroy their achievements it is as if they never existed. That is what Hitler wants and that is exactly what we are fighting for.”
Those powerful words are also the central message of the film: the importance of art and whether it is worth a man’s life trying to save it. An interesting question, but the problem is the way it is repeatedly posed. Stokes constantly reminds us in his speeches about the importance of art and after a while it begins to grate.
The other issue is that the men are meant to be art experts and yet they don’t seem to be particularly passionate about it. They hardly talk about art among themselves, which is a bit odd. And there is also not much in the way of artwork on display.
Even when Lt Donald Jefferies’ (Hugh Bonneville) finds Michelangelo’s marble statue, Madonna and Child, in a church or Pte Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) sees the name Picasso on a burnt frame it doesn’t feel like a pivotal moment.
The actors are good but their characters are not properly developed. The only one to really strike a chord is the emotional reaction of Sgt Richard Campbell (Bill Murray ) when he is played a recording of his family singing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ by Pte Savitz in the barracks.
The film includes a few comic vignettes as the men travel in pairs across Europe to find the masterpieces. Some work better than others. Sgt Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and Lt Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) bicker over who gets to shoot at a sniper. In another scene, Lt James Granger (Matt Damon) speaks French badly to French art historian, Claire Simone, played by Cate Blanchett.
The only part of The Monuments Men where there is any real tension is at the end when the men are trying to empty a disused mine of treasures looted by the Nazis before the Russians arrive to plunder it. This is set against a John William-esque Americana fanfare in the style of the Bridge On The River Kwai.
Clooney, who co-wrote the film with Grant Heslov, is a great actor (Syriana) and director (Ides of March), which is why it is disappointing that this film doesn’t quite work. It never really captures the horrors of the Second World War or the vast cost in terms of life and art. Apparently, it was the only time in history when the victors of war returned pieces of art to their rightful owners. We clearly didn’t learn from that, as there have been many museums, galleries, homes and sites that have been plundered in war-torn areas ever since.
The Monuments Men is not a bad film, it is quite watchable, and at least it shines a light on the work of the real-life monuments men. However, there is a great film to be made out of this story but, sadly, this isn’t it.
The Monuments Men is rated 12A and is on general release in cinemas across the UK.