There are many reasons why people decide to go to war. In countries with mandatory military service, there is no choice. In other countries, some volunteer out of patriotism, tradition, job security, vengeance, desperation, or the lure of generous benefits. But would you ever travel to the front lines and risk your life to save great artwork? That's exactly what members of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives group did towards the end of World War II to make sure that irreplaceable artwork wasn't destroyed in bombing raids or by retreating Nazi forces, hoping to insure that the shared heritage of the Western world Would continue to be studied and appreciated by future generations. Now their story is being told by no less than George Clooney, who directed, co-wrote the screenplay, and stars in The Monuments Men, a film that got me thinking about what can be lost when we go to war. Watch my ReThink Review of The Monuments Men below (transcript following).
It feels like no matter where I turn, I'm reminded of America's unhealthy obsession with and worship of soldiers, a bipartisan affliction where soldiers are deemed heroes and freedom protectors regardless of the justness of a war or the role they played in it, and "support the troops" easily becomes "support the war". It's a sentiment that I feel is meant to purposefully obscure the real reasons why wars are fought, which are usually far from noble. But in telling the story of seven art experts who went to the front lines near the end of World War II to retrieve priceless art pieces stolen by the Nazis, The Monuments Men takes an unconventional look at how what's at stake during war isn't just lives, territory, and resources, but the world's shared culture and heritage.
As the Nazis made their way across Europe, they stole millions of pieces of priceless art from private collections, museums, and historical sites. But this was no random looting -- it was part of Hitler's plan to someday house the world's greatest art in a museum in his hometown as a testament to his love of art and his thwarted artistic ambitions. Eventually realizing what was at stake, the US government created the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives group, a team of artists, art historians, architects, and museum curators tasked with finding and protecting valuable art so it could be returned to its rightful owners -- a mission that became more urgent when it was learned that Russian soldiers would be allowed to keep any art they found as reparations, and that Hitler had ordered his troops to destroy all the artwork if he was killed or Germany lost the war.
In the film, the leader of the group is Frank Stokes, an art historian and World War I veteran played by George Clooney, who also directed and co-wrote the film's screenplay. The other Monuments Men are played by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, and Hugh Bonneville as men well past recruitment age (and fitness) who are given the opportunity to use their knowledge to protect and preserve something bigger and more important than themselves. Cate Blanchett plays the curator of a French museum who was instrumental in helping the Monuments Men track down the stolen art, with Dimitri Leonidas rounding out the cast as a young soldier who accompanies the team as a driver and translator.
The Monuments Men is fun, fairly light entertainment, more of a heist movie than a war movie, with a certain Indiana Jones-style treasure-hunting vibe at times, though it's a subject I probably would've enjoyed more as a documentary, especially since the true story is so amazing, and having a great ensemble cast like this often left me wanting to see the actors doing more in what are fairly understated performances.
But it's the film's look at the consequences of war, and how this relates to modern-day soldier worship, that I found the most interesting. Since we can't pretend anymore that America's wars have anything to do with self-defense or anyone's freedom, we now seem content with the idea that a soldier fighting to save his own life or that of a comrade is somehow justification for occupying a country, due to the ludicrous notion that we should ignore the politics of war -- a political endeavor -- and simply "support the troops" no matter what.
But The Monuments Men looks beyond the short-term goal of bringing our boys back home to the preservation of something much more ineffable -- our shared heritage as humans. When the US allowed the Baghdad museum to be looted during the 2003 Iraq invasion, it wasn't just the Iraqis, but the whole world who lost those surviving artifacts from the cradle of civilization -- and with them, priceless history of what humans were like back then, which helps us better understand who we are now. We think of history as being set in stone, but those stones can be lost, stolen, or destroyed, particularly amidst the chaos of war. Instead of thinking only of our soldiers and which country wins, we should think more about what all of us might lose any time and place war is waged.