MONUMENTS MEN: AN INTERESTING STORY THAT DESERVED A MUCH MUCH BETTER MOVIE

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On Saturday 1 March, I was bored and decided to go see George Clooney’s Monuments Men, since that was just about the only movie that I had slight interest in seeing. I went in knowing full well they had to futz around the real story to make a movie and I was OK with that. However I was not OK with such a unique and amazing story getting such a slight, almost madcap, whimsical movie made about what was a triumph of the human spirit in a bleak, dark moment of history.

Before I do the actual review I need to go over what the Monuments Men, or rightly, The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section unit (MFAA) were and how they came about what they were tasked with doing during the allied push on Germany. Please pardon this history lesson. I have developed, in the last few hours, a fascination with this subject that will most likely be dry as burnt toast to most of you. However I do need to do this in order to review the movie properly. So I apologize and let’s begin shall we?

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The genesis for the MFAA began around 1940-41 when it became clear that the Nazis were the undisputed masters of mainland Europe with only England standing in its way and England was reeling badly under Nazi and Japanese assaults. Leading American universities and intellectual groups, knowing the Nazi were plundering the great art galleries and collections of Europe began making lists cataloging and identifying monuments and art that were in danger from Nazi pillaging and destruction from combat. By the time America entered into the war universities like Harvard, Yale and Stanford (among others) and leading intellectual groups had amassed a record of almost every major and minor piece of art, architecture or culturally significant works that were being looted or destroyed. In essence these men and women developed a civilian intelligence network that had information that became vital later on in the planning and execution of allied combat operation.

These intellectuals, who unlike the douche nozzles that carry that name today, didn’t loathe and fear us in harness and knew they needed the military’s help in preserving, recovering and restoring stolen artifacts and damaged buildings. With this thought in mind the intellectual class dispatched, in early 1943, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Henry Taylor (one of the three people Clooney’s character is based on) to Washington DC to present their concerns to President Roosevelt.

Taylor and the rest of the art braintrust didn’t figure on getting much out of Roosevelt they were just hoping to bring to the attention of the President their desire to somehow preserve as much as possible the treasure of artistic expression the Nazi were stealing or destroying. They believed that the world needed its Vermeers and Picassos and sculptures and buildings to remind us that even in our darkest hours, when we have let the evil beast of our dark nature  corrupt our souls, there is still beauty and light and things that make life good like the works of Leonardo da Vinci or the Flemish masters or even the clean lines of classic French architecture. Even I know this and I’m not much more than a retarded backwards ass white trash and so did Roosevelt (although I do suspect that there was also an ulterior political motive, he wanted to co-opt support and money from people that opposed his socialist agenda). So with a stroke of a pen Roosevelt created the “American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas” on 23 June, 1943. The egg heads got what they wanted and more and thus The MFAA was born and put under the Civil Affairs and Military Government Section of SHEAF. The men and women of MFAA were integral in the planning of combat operations after 6 June 1944 when the first group of art historians put boots on the ground in Europe. These nerds and geeks especially at first raced around like maniacs ahead of combat troops trying to locate and save as much art as possible from destruction. Most of these MEN and they were MEN in the best definition of the word had no business anywhere near combat operations. They were older out of shape museum types, desk bound architects and intellectuals. These MEN, these fearless maniacs went into harms way with almost no training and harnessed to the bedrock belief that they needed to save art to save our souls and that my friends is the very definition of bravery and honor in my book. These curators and art historians and gentle types looked evil in the eye and punched it right in the fucking nose. These MEN had seats waiting for them in Valhalla when they died. They are art warriors all.

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At the height of its existence the MFAA was roughly 400 strong made up of civilian and military personnel both male and female and had representatives from 13 countries. These men and women managed to save around 5 million culturally significant artifacts in both the ETO and PTO. The original MFAA was disbanded in 1946 but 60 Monuments Men worked in Europe for the next six years as art detectives and continued, as much as possible , to reunite stolen art with its owner or the museum it was stolen from. In the case of murdered Jewish collectors, they tried to get it back to their families. It was the first time in history a conquering force gave art back, preserved culturally significant items and did not keep it for themselves, like the Soviets did, shockingly enough. To a large extent we have that dummy Eisenhower to thank for that. Look a quote! From Lt. Col. Sir Leonard Woolley, British Army and Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Officer:

“Prior to this war, no army had thought of protecting the monuments of the country in which and with which it was at war, and there were no precedents to follow…. All this was changed by a general order issued by Supreme Commander-in-Chief [General Eisenhower] just before he left Algiers, an order accompanied by a personal letter to all Commanders…the good name of the Army depended in great measure on the respect which it showed to the art heritage of the modern world.”
I wonder which staff member had that buffoon Ike issue that order?

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For accuracy sake it should be noted that the British tried to do something like this in Libya in ‘42 and then another attempt, a rather unorganized and haphazard one, was tried by allied forces in Italy in ‘43. Most personnel from those earlier attempts ended up working for the MFAA.

If you managed to slog through that mess and have not pulled out your hair from both boredom and the poor quality of writing, here’s my review of Monuments Men.

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In Monuments Men, George Clooney is a quadruple threat. Writer, producer, director and star and because Cloonsters was the big dog of the whole magilla, the movie suffered because nobody had the cojones to tell him when he was wrong and when his decisions were not good. I commend George on wanting to bring this story to life but I condemn him for turning it into Oceans 12 which isn’t even the Good Oceans movie. As a director Clooney isn’t bad. He knows how to frame a shot and keeps the movie humming along at a good but usable clip, we learn what we need to know without getting bogged down in minutia and nonsense. As a producer and writer however Clooney needs somebody to exercise some control over him. The tone of the movie was all over the place. Is this a comedic look at serious subject? Is it a serious look at a subject with comedic elements? Is it a whimsical semi caper flick or a travel log of Germany? In execution it was all these things and more and that hurt MM in the worst way. It’s not a bad movie it’s just one that never found the right way to tell its story which is a shame. The Men and Women of the MFAA deserved better than this.

Anyway here is the story. It’s 1943 and Frank Stokes (George Clooney, his character in my opinion is based on George L. Stout, Henry Taylor and Major L. Bancel LaFarge) is briefing FDR on the importance of saving imperiled cultural artifacts in war torn Europe. FDR agrees and puts Stokes in charge of the whole shebang thus setting off an Ocean’s 11 style recruitment montage. First up is James Granger (Matt ”my head is much too big for my small body” Damon loosely based on James Rorimer) then Bob Balaban and Dr. Pete Venkman. I don’t really remember their names which is another issue with this movie. Not much in the way of character development so most of them just pass you by since you have no real connection to anybody except for Giant Dome and Trouser Snout Clooney. Also I’m too lazy to keep looking up names. Then after some abbreviated training off screen its off to jolly old England where we meet Roseanne’s husband Dan Conner and some English dude who for like half the movie I thought was the fat dude from In Bruges but isn’t. In my defense, the English all look alike so what do I know? Plus there is the French fella from that silent movie with the dog and an actor, who I don’t know and who is the  worlds oldest looking supposed “teenager”, are on hand to round out the group. Since most of them are old chums they fall into witty banter as they prepare to cross the channel just after D Day. Bureaucratic hassles ensue and not much help is given so the bull is taken by the horns. Matt Damon is sent off to France to get info from the weird looking elf queen from LOTR. She is actually helpful and had pages of useful info about where and when art was shipped back to Germany. Some people die, all the characters go off on individual missions and much art is found. The end.

You think I’m being funny here but I’m not. That’s the movie. Until about the last 30 minutes its a fractured story spinning between France and various parts of Germany that aren’t all that interesting until a made up scene of the MMs trying to recover a salt mine full of art and Nazi gold (that part is true) ahead of the evil mustache twirling Soviet art plunderer (that isn’t).

Seriously after all the time and effort you put into this Georgie, that was the best story you could come up with? I know you wanted to make your own Saving Private Ryan (Why else would you cast that hydrocephalic head Damon, was 3 chins Hanks busy?) but instead you made an extra long episode of The Phil Silvers Show (Sgt. Bilko) and that’s just dirty pool mister, dirty pool. The MM deserve so much better than this whimsical tale you spun. I know it, you know it and what’s left of the MM know it also. I figure all the dead ones know it too.

Xiphos.

DAMN IT POSTSCRIPT: As I reviewed this prior to sending it off to the wonderful Ms Barfy for fixing I realized damn it I forgot to mention that this is based on a book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert Edsel. I’m on the library wait list for this book so I don’t know if it’s good or not.

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About Xiphos0311

Sporadic genius but mostly IDGAF.

29 responses to “MONUMENTS MEN: AN INTERESTING STORY THAT DESERVED A MUCH MUCH BETTER MOVIE”

  1. Bettybowenart.com says :

    It’s a fun read. His other one–has Mona Lisa in the title, is the same info but a great collection of photos. I passed them on so can’t quite remember the name. If you want a more academic book on the general subject, The Rape of Europa might me what you want to read.

  2. Jarv says :

    Wait- there’s a good Oceans film?

    Nice review

  3. Just Pillow Talk says :

    Yeah, I read in some reviews the tone was as you said whimsical, but some of the boneheaded reviewers equated it to an older movie. That’s crap. I would think it should have been serious in nature with comedic moments. If you wanted to tell the story, clearly it struck you the importance of the work the monument men did.

    Oceans Eleven was passable.

    • Xiphos0311 says :

      Pillow it amazes me that guys that age from such soft careers from a strata of society that doesn’t usually go for that sort of thing went all in over art is incredible and breath taking. I wouldn’t have done and I’ve been doing this shit all my life.

      • Continentalop says :

        As much as I see the Ivy League as a bastion of elitism and classism, I have to say during WWI and WII (and the beginning of the Cold War) those guys really did believe in the social contract and felt like they had a responsibility towards the country.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        Yep. I should have noted above that a couple of those guys served in some capacity in WW1

      • Just Pillow Talk says :

        A true passion for culture that they went to hell to make sure they were not eradicated forever. They had balls.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        Large titanium ones.

      • tombando says :

        As someone that works in such an institution there Conti Pops–you ain’t that far off, believe me.

  4. tombando says :

    Yeah thats about what i thought too…Ocean’s 13. At least Sgt Bilko or a Kelly’s Heroes treatment for this would have been fun, done 100% that is. What did you think of the Bill Murray sitdown w the Nazi scene or the Belgian priest debacle? Some of those scenes needed More. Personally Phil Silvers mixing mit der Nazi’s sounds great. But only in a Bilko universe.

    • Xiphos0311 says :

      The sitdown scene either needed to longer with some sort of payoff or cut altogether. It seemed… curiously unfinished, maybe?

      • tombando says :

        Oh you got that right. I kept on expecting to see Bill Murray take the guy prisoner or whatever w/ a smirk and a shrug while the ‘prisoner’ comes in smoking their cigs and wearing Balaban’s hat. Oh well.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        yeah that scene wasn’t well executed at all. In fact a lot of the movie was that way things just sort of petered out.

  5. Continentalop says :

    Great review, Xi. Now I haven’t seen it (my dad did and he loved it, but give him a jeep racing across the ETO and he is a happy camper), but it sounds like it suffers from the same problem a whole lot of modern historical movies suffer from – lack of faith that the audiences will be interested in it unless it follows a cliched plot.

    • Xiphos0311 says :

      It wasn’t even that cliched Conti it was tone deaf as in in the tone was all over the map. i don’t expect a movie to remain the same throughout but at least stay consistent within a given scene.

  6. ThereWolf says :

    See, I don’t mind a history lesson nowadays, because at school I never listened in History class – and there’s a lot of intriguing stuff I’ve only discovered in later years. This sounds like another…

    I didn’t know what Monuments Men was about but now I do I’ll be sure to rent it.

    I’ve only seen the first Oceans and I didn’t like it – maybe because I can’t stand ‘trout mouth’. I seem to recall the heist took an age to happen – then it all happened really, really fast – The End. Crap, didn’t like it.

    Anyway, great review, Xi & the back story to the real Monuments was an informative bonus. Cheers.

    • Xiphos0311 says :

      Thanks Wolf

      There’s a lot of interesting side roads in the historical narrative. Too bad Clooney couldn’t deliver a better movie about this particular one.

  7. Toadkillerdog says :

    Great job Xi,
    I had no plans o seeing this flick, i will probably catch it on cable on of these days, but great write up

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