Art is very important to a culture. It’s hard for us to appreciate that in the United States, largely because we’re an infant country, comparatively speaking. To countries with vast histories such as France, England, and Spain, art can be a huge deal. That’s why the story of the Monuments Men is so inspiring. But what makes it relevant to us now, being far past the trials of World War II, is the bravery of men racing into a war zone to fight for a cause.
Many World War II films focus on the horrors of the Nazi treatment of Jews and other minority groups. This instead focuses on a different Nazi crime: the destruction of art. Hitler was himself a failed artist, and during his regime sought to destroy many important and valuable art pieces. This was especially true of art pieces featuring minority subjects. The Monuments Men tells the true story (with names and details changed, of course) of a group of men who were commissioned with finding and saving these pieces of art from the Nazis, thus saving the culture of a great many people.
The inspiring story isn’t enough to make a good movie, however. Despite being headlined by stars George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Cate Blanchett, and being set in a moving period of history (and one that never seems to lose its popularity in the box office), the film nonetheless suffers from a rushed start and poor depth of characters. Prior to throwing us into the action, the only character deemed worthy of prior development is Frank, (who incidentally is played by the director, George Clooney), and even Matt Damon’s character James only gets a brief conversation. The rest of them only get montages, and all of a sudden we’re expected to be connected to them.
In like fashion, the first half of the film is incoherent at best, without any real sense of direction. At this point, it really is only the historicity of the film, and the real men’s sacrifice that keeps the audience watching. Thankfully, the film’s rough beginnings aren’t representative of the film as a whole, as it quickly rebounds to a highly emotional story that tries to be worthy of its base material.
The film rounds out to an exposition of two storylines: James, who is in France trying to get information from a French woman who has knowledge about pieces the Nazis have stolen, and the rest of the men, who are trying to find where in Germany the Nazis have taken the art pieces. The film doesn’t rely, however, on the people whose culture is being taken (we barely see any abused minorities at all in this film), but rather on the men themselves, and the sacrifices they’re willing to make for someone else’s culture. This is all complimented by Frank’s occasional monologues, one or two of which are inspiring, but some of which feel very awkward and misplaced. It comes across in a manner similar to “preachy” Christian film, the mark of an impatient screenwriter who aims to tell us what the point is rather than showing us. That can be done well, but it’s only done well here about half of the time.
Still, the noble theme of the film, when combined with the lack of brutal World War II imagery, allows the film to incorporate more comical and heartfelt moments than the typical war film does. That too can be forced at times (was there any other point to Bill Murray’s character?), but is also charming, in a way. It reminds us that these men were not trained soldiers even as the film tells us that they made the same sacrifices.
The film doesn’t manage to develop that without some questionable ethics. Such as why a married man would go to a candlelight dinner in a French woman’s apartment by himself. But of course that’s just grazed right over. That’s exactly why it’s dangerous. Is it fine for a man in war to do that? Does distance deprive him of the necessity of responsibility, even if “nothing happens?”
But of course, none of that has to do with the conclusion, so it’s simply blown past as an irrelevant occurrence.
The conclusion at the end of the film is that saving these people’s culture is worth the sacrifices that these men made. Is it in reality? Maybe. But it also seems in a way to cheapen what the world war was truly about. It flies past the basic human rights violated by the Nazi regime with only a passing nod to the tortured and slaughtered minorities that suffered through the German conquests. The bravery of the men cannot be questioned, but the conclusion of the film, especially in comparison to greater lessons from that period of history, is a bold overstatement.