History is not to be stolen or destroyed: Review of The Monuments Men

Poster for the film The Monuments Men. The title is on a yellow backdrop above the six main characters in WWII military uniforms.
Day 455

I expected to have more to say about the 2014 movie The Monuments Men. I enjoyed it, and I recommend it. I felt that it missed some opportunities, but overall the choices made were consistent with the genre. It follows the curators and art historians who were tasked with protecting the art treasures of the Western world in WWI, in the face of Nazi looting and both sides’ bombing. The high profile cast (George Clooney, Matt Damon, etc) brought this little-known story to the public eye, which is great. I put it on my blog list because as a history person and someone who cares about public access to arts and humanities, it felt like a significant gap in my pop culture knowledge. Ironically, I missed it because when it came out, I was too busy with grad school for history and museum studies. In the "interesting times" we're living in, I was hoping this movie would inspire deep feelings about the value of culture and heritage as a part of people's liberation rather than a luxury, and it didn't really do that for me, but I very much see how it could be that inspiration for someone.

You know that I’m going to recommend sources that are better if you want information on the real monuments men of WWII. I didn’t notice any factual errors (not that I’m an expert on that subject, by any means) but I do plan to check out the nonfiction book the film was based on, by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter. I also highly recommend The Rape of Europa -- not the Titian painting, but the book by Lynn Nicholas and the film which came after it. The Monuments Men has some poignant scenes about whether art is worth risking your life to save, but the The Rape of Europa documentary has wonderful interviews with people from several affected countries about what the war meant to them, and what the art and heritage meant to them. 

The Monuments Men is not a traditional war movie and it doesn't have a lot of action scenes, but I think it’s a war movie more than anything else. The moments that humanized “the enemy” were as much about building or showing the protagonists’ true colors as they were about common humanity. Cate Blanchett’s character, the resistance spy, was one of my favorite parts, but she was sadly one-dimensional unless “has a seduction plot” counts as a dimension. I wish the film had talked about the ongoing struggle to repatriate art that was stolen from Jews and once destined for the F├╝hrermuseum, but the focus was narrower than that, and that’s okay. If you want a decent feel-good war movie with scholars and nerds as the heroes, The Monuments Men is worth watching.


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