Making the Grades
It is difficult to find a film that teaches about the horrors of WWII without dragging the audience through the gruesome and grisly details of Schindler’s List or Valkyrie. Some try, like The Book Thief that rehearses the conflict from the perspective of a German orphaned child who tries to insulate herself by reading. War Horse also tempers it message by telling it from the stance of a young soldier and his mount.
Now The Monuments Men, directed by George Clooney, tackles the events from the view of a group of art curators, historians, architects, archaeologists and archivists commissioned to save Europe’s fine art and monuments. Based on a true story, this small unit of Allied Forces scours the war zone looking for irreplaceable artwork, sculptures and other artifacts. Ahead of them the Germans are amassing these treasures and hiding them in secret locations until they are eventually placed in Hitler’s Fuhrer Museum—or worst yet, destroyed. On the other front, the Russian Trophy Brigade is gathering artwork to take back to the Soviet Union in the name of reparation.
Heading the task unit is Frank Stokes (George Clooney). He has authority from US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Christian Rodska) to assemble the group. Among those enlisted are James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). Stokes also drafts a young German immigrant (Dimitri Leonidas) to serve as their driver and interpreter.
Most of these recuits can barely pass basic training. Their real value is their ability to recognizing and retrieving these cultural works. Unfortunately the film doesn’t come off as masterfully as the art it depicts. The editing and pacing are often clunky. And it takes a while for the script to gain traction. All the samel, the result is an earnest project that weaves together humor and drama. The cast, who are obviously enjoying themselves, manages to give life to their characters as well.
While the depictions of violence are surprisingly subdued for a war film, there are still scenes of bloody war wounds, at least two fatal shootings and a landmine explosion. And not only do these enlisted men spew out profanities on a regular basis, they also perpetually puff on their cigarettes.
With an estimated 48,000,000 human deaths, World War II was a bloody battle by all accounts. But the immense loss of life was not the only casualty. Watching this team of Monuments Men fight to preserve the cultural identity and peoples’ history is inspiring, and will give adults and teens a different appreciation for the monumental cost of war.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Monuments Men.
On March 19, 1945 Adolf Hitler issued the Nero Decree. His intent was to destroy all infrastructure, important landmarks and communication facilities so that the advancing Allies would find nothing of value left. In the movie, this edict also includes the destruction of all the art hidden by the German army.
The destruction of a nation’s cultural heritage continues today. In August 2013, the United Nations addressed reports of looting and the destruction of monuments and museums in Egypt. How does the destruction of cultural identity (artwork, monuments, literature) affect a people? In addition to the historical significance, how does the loss of these items impact the identity of those it represents?
NEWS: November 4, 2013:
Just weeks before the theatrical release of this fictional story based on an actual group of men who scoured Europe trying to protect priceless masterpieces in peril because of the Nazi, a real life discovery hit the news. Approximately 1500 works of art, thought destroyed under Hitler’s command in the 1940s, has been found in the apartment of an 80-year-old man. The recovery of these paintings will undoubtedly contribute greatly to the art world, and the timeliness of this headline story won’t hurt the box office for The Monuments Men either.
Learn more about the real Monuments Men.
This movie is based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel.