The greatest treasure hunt in history wasn’t spent looking for pirate loot in the Caribbean or unearthing golden scarabs in ancient Egypt. It’s much more recent — it began 70-some years ago, in World War II — and is still going on today. The historical part of the tale is told in a terrific, heart-plucking new movie, that is guaranteed to make you cheer the good guys — it’s The Monuments Men.
Adolf Hitler, a frustrated artist, planned to build the largest museum in the world, his Fuhrermuseum, in his home town of Linz in Austria, to house the greatest art of western civilization. To that end, Nazis removed hundreds of thousands of art pieces from the occupied countries, approximately 20 percent of the art in Europe. The plunder was astonishing — paintings, ceramics, books, furniture, sculptures, tapestries, and more, including the altarpiece from Ghent and Michelangelo’s Madonna from Bruges. These treasures were stolen from sacred buildings and public institutions — and from the homes of Jewish art collectors. With their terrifying attention to detail, the Nazis not only recorded every piece they stole, but hid them away in secret mines, tunnels and castles.
In the final months of the war, the fate of the plundered art was desperate. As the Allies pushed westward into Germany, Hitler gave orders for the artwork to be destroyed. At the same time, the Russian troops, eager to take art as “reparations,” were storming in from the east.
Encouraged by President Roosevelt, the U.S military formed a special unit, whose job it was to safeguard the artifacts of European civilization. First, the unit identified important cultural edifices so the encroaching Allied forces would not drop bombs on them. Secondly and equally important, the team was to locate — and return — the art works stolen by the Nazis. It was a monumental task, some said a “mission impossible,” and they called themselves the Monuments Men.
In the movie version (based on the book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, by Robert M. Edsel), the heroes actually had to go behind enemy lines and track down the treasures from the slimmest of clues. Each person had to answer this question for themselves — is it worth giving your life to save a piece of artwork?
Heading the mission is George Clooney as a leading U.S. art conservator. As if he were modifying cues from Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen, Clooney finds the members of his platoon in their danger-free, middle age lives and woos them into certain danger. Matt Damon is a medieval art expert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who hilariously fancies himself a fluent speaker of French.
Bill Murray is a homesick architect, John Goodman is a gargantuan sculptor and Bob Balaban is a pint-size art connoisseur and ballet impresario. Rounding out the team is recovering drunkard, Brit art expert Hugh Bonneville, and Jean Dujardin, a French art connoisseur. Playing a key civilian role is art historian and Resistance fighter Clair Simone (Cate Blanchett), who in real life was Rose Valland, one of the most honored women in French history. (Her book, L’front de ‘art was the basis of the terrific 1964 movie, The Train, starring Burt Lancaster as a rail engineer struggling to rescue a train load of art treasures headed for Germany.)
Like the good old-fashioned movie it is, The Monuments Men sweeps boldly across the wide view of the war that never seems to end, yet takes time to focus on the personal stories of its characters — behind the grinding battles, life finds romance, humor, tragedy and enough heroism to make the audience applaud unabashedly at the end.
Film critics have been unduly harsh on The Monuments Men, claiming that the film, about art, should be more arty. Nonsense. Clooney made a simple PG-13 adventure, in sync with the style of its time, rather than a politically correct revision. It’s a perfectly entertaining film for all ages. In an uncanny update, two years ago, in a dingy apartment in Bavaria, researchers found over a thousand pieces of Nazi-plundered art. The true owners are still to be found.