That would have been a terrible mistake. The movie is based "loosely" on the book. Very loosely indeed. Robert M Edsel's The Monuments Men is a nonfiction account of a group of mostly American art historians, museum curators, and one very special art conservationist from Harvard's Fogg Museum, George Stout. To give you an idea of the stature of these men in the art world, after the war they went on to become the heads of New York's Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Isabella Stewart Gardner, The National Gallery, The Frick, The Fogg, The Yale University Art Gallery, The Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Dallas, Toledo, Brooklyn, and Worster Art Galleries, and the Library of Congress. One of them was Lincoln Kirstein, who with Balanchine created the New York City Ballet.
Theirs was a particularly difficult job. Just a few men, most of them in their 40s and much too old for army service in the middle of a vicious war. Kirstein lost 45 pounds during his six weeks of basic training with men half his age. But he and the others tracked down and protected our Western art heritage from the rapacious Germans, especially Hitler and Goring, who stole millions of art objects from the countries they conquered and from the particularly fine collections of Jewish families like the Rothchilds and Seligmanns.
The story really began in 1943 Leptis Magna with Lieutenant Colonel Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler of the Royal Artillery. The British North African Army had reached the ruins of the great city of the Emperor Serverus. The British had held the area earlier until they were pushed back into Egypt by Rommel. When the Italians reached the area they published a story of British destruction of the site, smashed statues, empty columns, collapsing structures, graffiti on the museum walls.
The accusations were false. The place had been collapsing on its own for 2000 years and the columns were empty because the Italians had taken the statues themselves. The graffiti was not on museum walls and it was just inches away from the graffiti the Italians had left in the area.
But the British had no way of countering the Italian claims of Allied destruction. They had no archaeologists or historians in North Africa. Now the British were back in Leptis Magnis and they really were destroying the site. Trucks and tanks were routed over the paving stones of the ruins of the old city and Wheeler was appalled. He went to the Civil Affairs officers and pointed out they really were destroying the site this time, the most complete Roman ruin in all Africa. "Never heard of it," said the officer.
Wheeler tried to explain the importance of the site. "Are you a historian?" asked the officer. "I'm an archaeologist," Wheeler replied, "Director of the London Museum." "Then do something about it, Director." With the help of a colleague from the London Museum, Wheeler rerouted traffic, photographed the site, posted guards, and organized repairs.
And the men respected their attempts to preserve the site. Throughout the story of The Monuments Men the art conservators and historians and curators found that if they told the troops about the towns and regions they were fighting for the men became increasingly curious and wanted to know more. Lincoln Kirstein wrote histories of the cities of Metz, Nancy, and Achen which were read eagerly by the troops.
It was hard work. One man would be attached to an entire Army and with a rank of lieutenant and no transportation, no typewriter, no paper even, they were trying to alert the men with sufficiently high rank to do something to preserve what they found after the battles in eastern France and Belgium. Time and again they arrived to discover the Germans had just days before taken monumentally important art objects such as Michaelangelo's Bruges Madonna and the Ghent Altarpiece of Van Eyck. Taken them east into Germany to protect them from the uncivilized American barbarians.
I didn't think I was going to be impressed with what I thought was a military history with a patina of art laid on. But of course the book was not that at all. You do have to know which British or American, or for that matter, Soviet army is where because the men assigned to the American groups were responsible for the area taken by the soldiers.
Meanwhile, back in liberated Paris 2nd Lieutenand James Rorimer was learning from the head of French Museums, who had been part of the Resistance, what had been taken by whom and when. And that a volunteer assistant at the Jeu de Paume named Rose Valland had repeatedly risked her life throughout the occupation spying on the Germans, keeping elaborate notes, photographs, and copies of receipts for art work that was chosen by Goring during more than 20 trips to the museum and sent to his house outside Berlin and to Hitler. Much of this art was from the collections of the Jewish families of Paris and it was because of Valland's work that so many of these works were returned to the owners after the war.
As Germany crumbled it became a race for the monuments men to reach the hiding places in central and southern part of the country where most of the stolen art was stored. The largest deposit of art was in a salt mine in Altausse which was in danger of being completely destroyed at the command of Hitler at the end of the war. In addition, this was part of the area that was going to be under the control of the Russians. The art recovered by the British and Americans was returned, all of it, to the country or individual who had owned it before the war, including those pieces taken from German churches and museums and stored for safekeeping. The Soviets were stealing everything they could get their hands on and were so careless with the caches of art they found that hundreds of important paintings were destroyed by rioting and fire.
The movie is a movie. There's apparently a totally fictitious love story, and the characters do not carry the names of the men who did the things the actors portray in the film. Reviews haven't been that great, but I'm looking forward to seeing George Clooney, Matt Damon, Hugh Bonneville, Bill Murray, and John Goodman portray the heroic monuments men.