From Sunday's TIMES and NEWS-STAR
For the past three generations, books and movies, documentaries and museums and oral histories have told and retold -- still tell us -- of World War II.
But sometimes it takes a celluloid soldier – George Clooney comes to mind! – to get us to really pay attention. Or to hear of it at all.
Thank you George! You can never replace the original Father of Our Country, but you have never been more George to me than you are right now. I just hope your movie’s good.
Clooney directs and obviously had plenty to do with bringing to the big screen a WWII story few have known anything about until recently. “Monuments Men” opens Friday with a cast star-studded – Damon, Blanchett, Goodman, and even Bill Murray, in his first war movie since “Stripes,” unless you count “Ghostbusters II.” Plus George!
This is not a “shooting” movie. There will be some, but such was
Europe in the 1944. The movie will be souped-up, not true to the book, but the premise and the history lesson will be the same.
“Monuments Men” is the story of soldiers, roughly 350 men and women, who worked to find, recover, save and return billions of dollars’ worth of hundreds of thousands of items stolen by the Nazis during WWII. This ultimately included everything from wedding rings to fine china to furniture to Raphael’s “Portrait of a Young Man,” which remains at large, last seen in Poland in 1945.
The movie is based on the 2009 book “Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” by Robert Edsel. I bought it three years ago, then lost it for two -- much like Jan Vermeer’s “The Astronomer” was lost, along with train car loads of other works, compliments of Hermann Goring. But it was found two weeks ago; I’ve finished it. Until now, I’d never known, and sadly had never thought of, any of this.
But then, neither had most anyone else.
The job description of the Monuments Men was, as described by Edsel, simple: “…save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat. These men not only had the vision to understand the grave threat to the greatest cultural and artistic achievements of civilization, but then joined the front lines to do something about it.”
These men and women were from 13 countries. Most of them were historians, architects and curators, and most volunteered in the newly created Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, or MFAA. When, after miles of red tape, they showed up in Europe in groups of 2’s and 3’s, or alone, they didn’t even have a typewriter or a Jeep.
In their own way, they battled. They marked maps so Allied aviators could avoid culturally important sites. They inspected sites as soon as sites were liberated, and soon the regular soldier caught on that what was being saved in canvas and marble and parchment was “worth something.” They searched for clues and discovered stolen treasure, everything from Monet to Michelangelo, in castles, in nondescript storage areas, in massive underground caves, all confiscated by the Gestapo, and most transferred by rail to the Motherland so that Hitler, a failed commercial artist, could one day build the world’s most majestic cultural museum and town. He had it all planned.
Makes you wonder if any of this would have happened had he not been rejected as a young man by the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. Couldn’t he have simply applied the next year? “Seems instead,” one of my cultured buddies said, “he took ‘disgruntled’ a bit too far.”
After the war, the Monuments Men worked to return as many recovered artifacts as possible to their owners or their countries of origin. They received little acknowledgement, then or thereafter. Even those in today’s art community knew little of what their former curators and directors had done to, in Edsel’s words, “preserve the world’s cultural heritage.” Congress didn’t even officially acknowledge their contribution until the 63rd anniversary of D-Day.
But that’s because, as they had quietly performed their jobs at war, they returned and quietly performed their jobs at home. There’s an art to that.
· The National WWII Museum in New Orleans plans to open its Monuments Men gallery in 2016 as part of the museum’s new Liberation Pavilion.