It’s startling to think that World War II, perhaps the most documented event in human history, can still yield true-life stories that are only just emerging after nearly 70 years. One of those stories is that of the Monuments Men, a group of historians, restoration experts and artists who scoured Europe in the waning days of the war to rescue thousands of works of art, along with churches and other artifacts, from the destructive grip of the Third Reich as it went through its final convulsions. That story was first brought to life in the book The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel (with Bret Witter) and has now been adapted to the screen by George Clooney, who directed the film in addition to co-writing the script and starring as team leader Frank Stokes.
The Monuments Men (which opens Friday) follows Stokes as he gets permission from President Franklin Roosevelt to assemble the group, rushes them through basic training and heads straight into the European conflict to save the art before Nazi Germany either steals or destroys it all. At a recent press conference in Los Angeles, Clooney said that his goal was to make a film that entertained despite its grim subject matter. “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. We thought it was sort of a mix between Kelly’s Heroes and The Train, and we wanted to talk about a very serious subject that’s ongoing still. We also wanted to make it entertaining. That was the goal.”
The primary entertainment value in the film almost certainly comes from the cast that Clooney has assembled, including Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Cate Blanchett and Jean Dujardin. The famously selective Murray addressed why he decided to work on the picture. “George told me the story that he was going to do about a year before, and I thought, ‘Gosh, that really sounds like fun,’” the actor recalled. “And then, suddenly about a year later, he said, ‘Would you like to be in this film?’ I’d thought about it for a whole year, so I said yes. The story is so fascinating, and as they say, untold. Most people don’t know this story. And to do it with this group of people was not just ennobled because they’re all so good, and everyone is such a good actor, but they’re so much fun.”
“Fun” would seem to be an odd word when talking about a movie that deals with the possible loss of 1,000 years of European culture, but that’s the word that Clooney himself used when discussing the casting of the movie. “It was really fun. I think pretty much to a man…Grant (Heslov, co-writer and producer) and I, when we sat down, we were writing it, we hadn’t thought of Bob (Balaban) yet, and we went to an Argo party. We saw Bob and we had this part and we knew that we wanted Bill (Murray) in it. We kept thinking, ‘Who are we going to put opposite Bill that Bill can give a really hard time to?’ And then, we were at this party with Bob, and I looked over, and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s perfect’ and Grant said, ‘It’s perfect.’ We called Bob the next day.”
While the Monuments Men were real (five of the originals are still alive), the characters in the movie have either had their names changed or are composites of several of the real life unit members. “We changed the names of the characters because we wanted to give some of them some flaws for entertainment purposes, quite honestly, for storytelling purposes,” admitted Clooney. “You don’t want to take somebody who’s 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 some. But these are all based on real men.”
“Oddly enough, the man that my character was based on was from my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri,” said John Goodman when asked by Den Of Geek about his role. “He did a sculpture in downtown St. Louis that I would drive by on the city bus every time I went downtown with my mother. To me, that was something very remarkable and it touched something in me and grounded me in that way. I used what I knew of the gentleman from the book and from other things that I read about him, and the script tied everything together for me.”
Cate Blanchett’s character, Claire Simone, was based on a woman named Rose Valland, a French art curator who kept track of the works that the Nazis looted from Europe and funneled through the Jeu de Paume, an art museum in Paris. Valland risked her own life and provided critical information to the Monuments Men. “What I found really inspiring about her and I think about all the characters is that they were such unlikely heroes and heroines,” explained the Oscar-nominated actress. “Rose Valland was utterly alone and would write all this stuff down on the back of her cigarette papers and put them into this book which any day could have gotten her killed. I found that the fear that she had to serve under on a daily basis was very inspiring.”
An inspiring story was, apparently, what Clooney wanted to make from the start: “I wasn’t really looking to make a statement on things,” he replied when asked if he wanted to say something about modern-day greed with the film. “Grant and I tend to make films that are somewhat cynical at times, and we sat down specifically saying, let’s not do that for once. Let’s do one that doesn’t have any of that in it and that has a real positive outlook at things. That’s what we sought to do with this.”
But there’s no question that The Monuments Men does say something – about the value we place not just on human life, but on human culture. “One of the things that attracted me to this was I’d always known about the stealing of the art, but never really the extent of it,” said Bob Balaban, who plays art historian Preston Savitz. “The question that the movie poses specifically and I thought it was great, is why is it so important that you should kill so many people but also try to eradicate their culture? It is so significant, and it’s something very hard to get across in another piece of art, in a movie. I thought the script and then the movie did it beautifully. I think it’s a question we are struggling with all the time. Is it just pretty? What does art do for us? How does it represent us? It’s our whole inner life out there for people to see and it’s subtle. I think it’s very hard to depict and I thought that the movie did it really well.”
While a good deal of the art stolen by the Nazis has found its way back to museums, the original owners, or their descendants, a large amount of it remains unaccounted for or in the hands of others who came upon it either accidentally or as part of the spoils of war. With repatriation of that art still an ongoing process, and with similar, vast losses having occurred in Iraq and even now possibly in Syria, Clooney feels that the message of The Monuments Men is a timely one. “One of the scenes when we were writing, we wrote about where you say you can kill them, you can murder their families, but if you take away their culture, that’s when the society breaks down. I’d spent a lot of time going through these villages in the Sudan and in Darfur where it wasn’t enough that you killed them and you killed their children. You had to destroy the things that they had created from generations before. You had to destroy what made the village theirs.
“We started to understand, when we didn’t protect the art at the beginning of the war in Iraq, when we didn’t protect those museums, those artifacts and a lot of those things were lost forever, how that can actually affect the community in a very deep way,” Clooney continued. “We keep relearning how important those things are and how important those pieces are. What are you fighting for if it’s not for your culture and your life? So it’s a hard thing when you’re doing a movie, as you can imagine, when you say you’re going to write a script about saving art, it doesn’t sound all that fun. 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 get and some can’t. It’s also about culture. It’s about these monuments and it is about these sculptures, but it’s also just about the fabric of our culture and our history. It is mankind’s way of recording history.”