ByWill Reitz, writer at
Will Reitz

The Monuments Men was originally slated to be a Christmas weekend 2013 release. But it was held back until February 2014. That is not usually a very good sign. Often, movies that are scheduled for the summer or Christmas but get moved to the cinematic wasteland of late-winter/early-spring are thus rescheduled because the studio has lost faith in the project, and doesn't want it to fail in the prime of the Cinema Calendar. In the case of The Monuments Men, it does not appear that it was held back for quality reasons. Rather, star & director George Clooney wanted more time to craft the movie.

The time he used to perfect the movie has been wasted, in the eyes of many critics, including Entertainment Weekly, which gave the movie a C. This negative criticism is unfounded, and is often (when you actually read the reviews) based on a misunderstanding of the story George Clooney is trying to tell.


When Adolf Hitler was a young man, fresh out of military service in World War I, he wanted to go to art school in Venice. But the art school rejected his application to become a student because, frankly, he wasn't worthy. Oh, how history may have been different if they'd have just let him study there! Hitler would go on to add this to the list of things he blamed on the Jews, believing that the Jewish cultural elite of Venice had ruined his dream. In time, as his dreams and ambitions took a political turn, Hitler had the power to take the art that he treasured most and make it his own. When Nazi Germany invaded a territory, they would steal its art, particularly the private collections of Jews (like the Rothchilds of Paris), which were taken wholesale. Hitler's plan was to create the greatest cultural & artistic center the world had ever known in his hometown of Linz, Austria, with the centerpiece being a sprawling campus of museums known as the Fuhrermuseum. In order to fill the museum, he needed art. So he stole it.

In the Allied world, the professional museum curators made plans to protect the cultural treasures of Europe. At first, the plan was to try to get military campaigns to limit the amount of collateral damage done to churches, monasteries, castles, and other irreplaceable historical & artistic treasures. (The movie deals very little with this; it is dealt with more extensively in the book The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel.) When the Monuments Men (so named because they belonged to the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program) arrived in Europe, they discovered that their primary objective would not be buildings, but actual pieces of art, that were being stolen systematically by the Nazis. The film focuses on 2 priceless pieces of art: Michelangelo's Madonna with Child statue & the Ghent Altarpiece (a 12 panel painting in from Ghent, Belgium). Both pieces are, eventually, rescued, along with thousands of others.

You will like this movie if ...

... you like historical period pieces. The movie takes great pride to put us in the world of late World War II.

... you like World War II movies or history, and you can't get enough. In no way does this movie tell us anything about the central themes of the war itself, but it is a great supplement.

... you like art. The movie deals with World War II about as much as Schindler's List, in that, both movies are totally dependent on the events of World War II, but they actually deal exclusively with events happening alongside the war. The Monuments Men feels more like it is about the art than with war.

... you appreciate understated acting. In a way, this is one of Bill Murray's best movies. But he doesn't play a typical Bill Murray character. He is not there for comedy relief. John Goodman, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin, & Cate Blanchett all do an excellent job. The movie has the tone & mood of the world in 1944, so don't expect it to be jubilant.

... you like movies about old guys doing their thing. There are many movies, mostly comedies, about men past their primes having fun or achieving greatness: Last Vegas, Grumpy Old Men, Space Cowboys, Secondhand Lions, etc. A secondary theme of The Monuments Men is that all the young art experts competent enough to do the work of the Monuments, Fine Arts, & Archives program were already in Europe or the Pacific fighting. So George Clooney has to recruit the guys who are too old for regular military service. This gives John Goodman the chance to give us the one truly great comedy relief scene in the movie.

You will not like this movie if ...

... you like your war movies with lots of war in it. Saving Private Ryan this is not. You can count the scenes in which guns are fired on one hand. There is, I recall, only two scenes with explosions: one is a small explosion in a character scene, in the other they are trying to get through the tunnel to the art. Only a few characters die.

... you are hoping to learn a lot about World War II by watching this movie. The Monuments Men tells one story within the war. Familiar aspects of the war are alluded to, but not explained. I believe George Clooney is banking on you knowing enough about Normandy & the Battle of the Bulge that he can merely mention them onscreen and elicit an emotional reaction.

... you can't stand art. See above analysis.

... you demand your movies to be neat, tight, compact storytelling. Entertainment Weekly was right, this movie is a little bit all-over-the-map. Rarely are all the Monuments Men in one place. Matt Damon's character is doing his thing without any of the other fellas for half the movie. Those who know about the Monuments, Fine Arts, & Archives program - probably by reading Edsel's book - know that this is intentional. The Monuments program was understaffed, their aims and objectives were never made crystal clear by military leadership who could not care less about art, and their mission changed as they discovered treasure troves of stolen painting and sculptures. Their incredible success is even more impressive when you consider that they were kind of shooting from the hip.

... you expect your historical movies to be perfectly accurate. For the purposes of telling the story in a reasonable time frame, Clooney does not bother telling any of the story of the British work before D-Day. The British had been heavily involved in protecting the historically-significant & irreplaceable ruins of Leptis Magna & other ancient ruins in North Africa. They also were the driving force behind the founding of the Monuments work. But the movie makes it seem like George Clooney's American character put the idea in Roosevelt's head, & the President immediately assigns him to go protect the art. Also, very few of the characters are named after their real life counterparts, and I'm not entirely sure why. It is obvious to anyone who reads The Monuments Men that George Clooney's Frank Stokes is a nearly exact replica of real-life George Stout. I assume that, perhaps, Clooney had difficulty securing the rights to use the real names, so he just fictionalized the lot. This was unnecessary. One of the things that make Band of Brothers so neat is that these characters were real people. Finally, there is a scene where the Monuments Men are rescuing their most prized art just minutes before the Soviets come steal it for their own. That is a fictionalized account of the days following the war.


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