There was a bit of a flap here in Cambridge last summer when George Clooney and Matt Damon turned up at Kelsey Kerridge Sports Centre to work out and play some basketball. If you’ve ever been to Kelsey Kerridge you’ll know that’s sort of a weird image, but the point of it is that they were filming The Monuments Men at the nearby Duxford Imperial War Museum, which I have never gone to even though the number 7 bus goes right there.
I first came across the work of the Monuments, Fine Art and Archives section — the “Monuments men” — when writing a review of Sidney Kirkpatrick’s book on their search for the “Spear of Destiny,” and by that I mean their total non-search for the spear that Sidney Kirkpatrick desperately wanted to be more sinister and occult-y than it was. But they were more famously the subject of Robert Edsel’s book which I presume is what attracted the attention of Clooney.
The actual history of MFAA is pretty impressive — even while preparing to invade Europe, the Allies were concerned about protecting and repatriating the collections of art and historical artefacts that the Nazis had been swiping from all over occupied Europe. Sometimes these pieces were directly looted, sometimes they were “sold” more or less at gunpoint, and of course in many cases they were confiscated from Jewish families who were either forced to flee the country or killed. The process was an extremely complex one, especially the part about figuring out who the real owners were, which is still going on in some cases.
To facilitate the process, dozens, even hundreds of “Monuments men” (depending on who you count) were attached to the invading Allied armies to identify items of cultural and historical significance and advise on them. Some of them were already well-known in the art or history fields: one of the great figures of Middle Eastern archaeology, Sir Leonard Woolley, worked with the program, for instance.
The problem with the story of the MFAA is the problem with the story of any large effort. When you have a huge cast spread out over different parts of the war, it’s hard to put together a coherent narrative. The film reduces the cast to seven and makes them a band of scrappy misfits making it up as they go along, which makes for a more satisfying conventional war movie structure, complete with a sadistic Nazi villain and a quirky car to drive around in. The movie also compresses the timeline a lot: it portrays the MFAA program as starting in the latter half of 1944, when in reality it was already underway by 1943.
There’s a certain amount of added action: the number of Monuments men who die in the film is the same as the number who died in real life, except that there were many times more MFAA personnel in real life. I was pleased to see that there wasn’t really a shoehorned-in romance. I was also pleased to see that a lot of the locals were portrayed as skeptical about the intentions of MFAA, believing that they were there to procure the art for American museums.
When I watched Six Feet Under, the bits where Lauren Ambrose was in art school always struck me as implausible — I bet that actual artists, even art students, don’t sit around discussing The Nature of Art all that much. Similarly, even though Treme is moderately restrained about it, I bet that most people from New Orleans go from one year’s end to the next without saying that this city is music. Similarly, in my experience, archaeologists don’t spend all their time yakking about the significance of what they do and heritage and culture and blah, at least not when they’re not trying to persuade lawmakers of something. But the guys in this movie do, boy howdy.
This sounds like I didn’t like it, which isn’t true. It’s a goofy buddy action/comedy which happens to invest in the idea that art and history are important — literally important enough to die for. I feel like it’s a little incoherent in the story it’s telling, but perhaps that’s to be expected. I enjoyed it a lot. I do wonder if we’ll start to see people believing that MFAA was just seven misfits tooling around Belgium and Germany with a trailer full of Rembrandts, though.