When you read this at the beginning of a film does your heart, like mine, sink ever so slightly? I have just been to The Monuments Men. There were several reasons for this. Firstly my son is in the film, admittedly not in a main part but in it nevertheless, and as long as you know when he is going to appear and in what scene and you don’t blink for the first forty-five minutes you will get to see him. I shall buy the DVD in the hope that there will be extras that show any scenes cut from the movie…for the same reason. The second reason is more silly and trivial: I simply adore George Clooney, what a tired trope that is! Me, and a few million other women. Never mind, I think he is gorgeous and no matter how silly, fatuous or excellent his films you will find me there – even at Gravity which is pretty nearly the most pointless film I have ever been to.
So back to this film, which to be brutally honest is based very, very loosely on a true story. The real “Monuments Men” numbered about 350 men and women, all experts in their field which was art and archives in all their various manifestations. They did not all survive, which is true of this film also. But oddly, in the film they give a completely fictional character one of the great true life moments: the discovery, then loss, then rediscovery of the only Michelangelo sculpture ever to leave Italy: The Madonna and Child from Bruges Cathedral, which thanks to these men you and I can go to see today.
The man who really identified where the Madonna and Child was, Major Ronald Edmond Balfour, arrived in Bruges only to find that he was a week too late; the Germans had already moved it. He then went on to find several other important pieces, and in 1945 was in Clèves (perhaps more famous for the fateful English Queen of Henry VIII) where he saved countless works of art but was killed by a shell while removing some sacred statues from the Church. His fellow monuments officer, Sir Leonard Woolley acknowledged his death as a great loss to the team and to the art world. Major Butler was an art historian and Fellow of Kings Cambridge before the war, he signed up to the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives) almost as soon as it was created and was one of the first people on the ground.
The film also covers the loss and rediscovery of the Ghent Altarpiece, the rediscovery of which alone might have justified the whole enterprise, in spite of the deaths of several members of the team. Which can be seen today, again thanks to these men.
Another really important part of the true story, the discovery and exposure of the major forgeries of Vermeers by Hans Van Meegeren also escapes this film. Two were discovered and identified as forgeries by members of MFAA, Sir Ellis K Waterhouse and Geoffrey Webb. One of them, Christ with a Woman taken in Adultery was in Hermann Göring’s collection of stolen art. This was maybe a wise exclusion, honestly there was not time to cover every single aspect of the story because there was a lot of time driving around in American jeeps from one shattered town to another until by some miracle they find a treasure map with all the main sites marked on it, and then it was a race to beat the Russians. [Göring crops up with his stolen art in the book described in my previous post on Priscilla Doynel, she may have been friends with, or only acquainted with, his art dealer Otto Brandl.]
George Clooney plays Frank Stokes, the fictional American art historian who persuades President Roosevelt to sanction this expedition and Matt Damon plays James Granger, another fictional character, responsible for the French art collections – in fact the character most akin to Squadron Leader Douglas Cooper, a well know collector of modern art and part of MFAA, himself responsible for the discovery of the Schenker Papers which listed the art works moved from France to Germany and where each piece went. Douglas Cooper went on to expose the Swiss art dealers who were complicit in assisting the sale of incredible numbers of looted art works from private collections (largely Jewish) which funded the escape plans of a considerable number of highly suspect and wanted Nazis. Winston Churchill himself intervened and two of the best know dealers were mysteriously pardoned, their galleries were still operational in London long after the War.
Both Clooney’s character and Matt Damon’s are fictional, as indeed are all the characters in the film. As I said, loosely based on a true story. Films are not and never can be true life, but seeing that there is a huge amount of true and interesting material surrounding the MFAA, it seems rather perverse, darling Georgie, to have turned this film into a cross between Ocean’s Eleven (a sort of reverse heist) and The Good German, even using many of the same actors…but don’t let my pernickety carping stop you from going to the film. It is like the Parson’s Egg – good in parts! It is a moderately good film loosely based on a true story.