Yesterday I finally had the opportunity to see a movie I had been waiting to see for the last few months, The Monuments Men. In anticipation, I had read the book of the same name by Robert M. Edsel. I had meant to read the book much sooner (as in before there was ever a movie in production), but somehow I failed. So first up, a bit about the book.
The book, fully titled The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, follows the work of the original monument men to protect Europe’s cultural treasures. Each was hand-picked for his duty because of previous work within the fields of art, art history, and architecture. As part of their duties, they examined damaged historic buildings and traced Nazi-looted treasures from within said buildings and from personal collections. As the author admits, there is too much to the story to cover in one book as originally planned, so this title focuses on Western Europe. A second, more recent, book Saving Italy: The Race to Save a Nation’s Treasure from the Nazis, traces the same work in Southern Europe (I hope to read this one eventually; hopefully my copy arrives this week). While each monument men is traced, special attention is paid to George Stout (whom became the leader) and James Rorimer (whom worked closely with the French resistors Rose Valland and Jacques Jaujard, who worked within the Louvre and Jue de Paume).
Overall, I was thrilled with the book. All historical elements were well traced, as evidenced by the end notes. The writing read like a well-paced novel by incorporating dialogue from interviews and adding elements of suspense while on the hunt for missing artwork. Relevant photographs and maps were included to help visualize the destruction of cultural landmarks, vastness of the underground art storage areas, and the paths the monuments men took to locate the missing items.
Now on to the movie. Each character in the movie was clearly based on one of the real Monuments Men. For example, George Clooney’s Frank Stokes was Stout and Matt Damon’s Jame Granger was Rorimer. Only the names were changed. Also, all the places covered in book made appearances in the movie, to varying degrees. The movie showed not only the men’s work to trace and rescue the artwork, but also how the first batch of Monuments Men were chosen.
That said, the movie was not that accurate. In real life, the men were assigned to the different main armies within Europe and went ashore with those troops during the D-Day landings. After that, the men operated as “lone rangers” tracking leads. As the caches of stolen art were located, the men who found them helped oversee the removal of the art. With the except of Stout traveling to join the men at each find, they whole group was seldom together post-training. In the movie, everyone stayed together as a group. Also, some incidents were overplayed, such as tracing the Bruges Madonna, when the book and real life indicated the search for the Ghent Altarpiece was the holy grail. The same goes for the demonstrations of Nazis deliberately destroying artwork; yes, some happened when Hitler issued the Nero Decree but more was done to actually prevent it. Other defining incidents mentioned in the book were left out, such as the rescue of a wooden Madonna carved in the 1400s that was located in a bombed church (sorry I can’t remember the town; I read a library copy or I would look it up). I also think more time was spent showing how the Monuments Men interacted with each other than the actual hunt for artwork during the course of the movie. Lastly, the Monuments Men face real difficulty being accepted by the fighting men and were often denied help, transportation, and material, something the movie only briefly indicated.
Overall, the movie, like the book, stressed the importance of saving cultural heritage. It was just the presentation was different. Without cultural heritage, a people’s history is lost. And that’s exactly why Hitler hoped to destroy all artwork he saw as degenerate (mostly modern art) and collect/protect all art he saw as “Germanic” in origin.
If you have yet to read the book and plan to see the movie, see the movie first. If you have already read the book, like I did, you may not want to bother with the movie. I spent the whole time comparing the book to what I was seeing in the movie and it killed the enjoyment. Thus I can’t really say if it was good, bad, or somewhere in between.
To learn more, check out the following resources:
The Monuments Men Foundation: Offers news and history; it is the official organization about the men and continuing rescue efforts. Yes, stolen artwork has been found as recently as last year! More could still someday be found.
Monuments Men Rescued Archives Too!: A short post on the blog written by Linda Barnickle that links out to tons of resources on the Monuments Men.