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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Monuments Men

Saving the cultural history of Europe

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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February 9, 2014 -- This dramatization of the efforts of a special military unit devoted to preserving artwork in World War II shines a light on little-known, but important part of European history.

This is a George Clooney project. He not only directed this movie, but he co-wrote it with Grant Heslov, produced it, and and stars in the film. Clooney also seems to have used his influence to attract an all star cast, including Bill Murray, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchet, John Goodman and Bob Balaban.

The movie is based on the book, “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” by Robert M. Edsel. It shows the formation and work of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit of the Allied Army, tasked with with saving works of art and other culturally important items in danger of destruction in the war. This same unit was also active in Japan during the war, though this is not mentioned in the film.

Clooney (“Gravity”) is the head of the Monuments unit, Frank Stokes. He makes a case for the creation of the unit and recruits its members from the ranks of artists, historians, curators and engineers. They know the Nazis are looting a vast amount of art and treasure from Europe, but they don't know where it is going. Adolph Hitler had a plan for a huge museum to house the best art pieces looted from Europe, but it eventually became clear it would never be built.

The treasure hunt begins with bits of information from captured German soldiers, civilians, captured documents and other clues. A key to unraveling the mystery of the vanished art lies with an alleged collaborator, Claire Simone (played by Cate Blanchet of “The Lord of the Rings” movies). She knows a lot about the art stolen from Paris, but is not talking. She thinks the Allied troops will simply steal the art from the Germans and ship it all back to America and England. James Granger (played by Matt Damon of the “Bourne” movies) tries to persuade her that the Allies are serious about returning the art (much of it stolen from private collectors) to the rightful owners.

Eventually, the trail of stolen art leads to a series of caves, containing thousands of pieces of art, gold, and a lot of personal property stolen from the occupied countries of Europe. Gold teeth and fillings from Holocaust victims are found, along with vast amounts of gold bullion and currency, hidden in the mines. Along the way, two of the Monuments men are killed in fighting with German troops.

The film tells a very positive story about America and some of its allies. In this film, American soldiers are the good guys, instead of looting, they are recovering the loot and returning it to the rightful owners. Clooney has been quoted as saying “We'd been talking about doing something that was a little less cynical, because we're not quite as cynical as the films we tend to make.” American audiences like that kind of positive message, but so far, the critics don't like it. You can't please everyone.

I find myself more in agreement with fellow critic, MaryAnn Johanson (The Flick Filosopher, “burdened with glorious purpose”) who responded to these attacks from other critics by saying, “Well, now that I’ve seen it, I don’t know what the hell they’re all talking about, because this movie is fantastic.” I would not say fantastic, but I do say it is a good film. This is a film for those of you who have had it up to here with cynical, depressing, slow-moving films.

I liked this film precisely because it is not fashionably cynical. It is a positive film, and a reminder when we used to do the right thing (as opposed to what happened in the U.S. invasion of Iraq when perhaps 500,000 or more archaeological items were looted). The all-star cast does a good job with the material and the production values are very good. The story gets its point across and follows the history fairly well (with a lot of dramatic license). This film rates a B.

One of the more surprising stories in the film has the Monuments Men finding tons of gold at the Kaiserode salt mine at Merkers, Germany, along with a lot of stolen art. In fact, tons of Reichsbank gold and currency at this mine were not found by a Monuments man simply opening a door, as shown in the movie. It was found on April 8, 1945 by journalists, photographers and the 282nd Engineer Combat Battalion by blasting a hole in a mine wall with dynamite. The first Monuments man arrived two days later, after the stolen artwork was found in the same mine.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2014 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)