Monuments Men: Fact or Fiction

Three months after the release of the touching movie adaptation of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (November 8, 2013), Hollywood is revisiting World War II with The Monuments Men. George Clooney co-wrote, directed, and starred in the film, which is based on the book  The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter. As the Allied Powers closed in on Nazi Germany, seven men, led by Frank Stokes (Clooney), volunteer to become part of a special unit tasked with saving stolen artwork, monuments, and artifacts from Nazi possession and destruction. Each member was a renowned art expert. George L. Stout, the real-life counterpart of George Clooney’s character, worked in the art conservation department of the Harvard Fogg Art Museum. He became director of the museum in 1933, and held the position for fourteen years. Matt Damon’s character, based on James Rorimer, was a museum curator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was instrumental in the creation of the Cloisters. Some of the other men were art historians, or artists themselves.

Some critics have emphasized the historical inaccuracies and attacked the theatrical humor inserted for dramatic purposes. One of the most glaring differences between historical fact and the movie’s depictions is the number of men on the team. In a special featurette and interview on the Internet Movie Database, it is stated that most of the film’s seven main characters are really composites of the 350 members (men and women from thirteen nations) of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA aka “the Monuments Men”). The very founding of the group was also altered for the film, giving Clooney’s character a more direct role in influencing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to create the MFAA. However, the Monuments Men book does state that the group was Stout’s “brainchild.”

While the film may not be a completely accurate or thorough textbook representation of the historical events, press for the movie has brought attention to past and present art repatriation debates, including those surrounding Greece’s “Elgin Marbles” (taken from the Parthenon in the nineteenth century) and Egypt’s famed Rosetta Stone. Both the “Elgin Marbles” and the Rosetta Stone are currently housed in the British Museum in London. Clooney and his co-stars, Bill Murray and Matt Damon, all support Greece’s claim that England should return the marble statues, but the British Prime Minister David Cameron said he does not “believe in ‘returnism,’ as it were. I don’t think that’s sensible.”

​Other British arguments against repatriation range from declaring the act useless to not wanting to set a precedent that could empty their historical collections. Is this situation any different from Hitler’s plan to display stolen artwork in his private museum? Where do we draw the line? Both the film’s message and repatriation in general emphasize the importance of preserving different cultures. As Clooney’s character states: “You can wipe out a generation of people. You can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow they’ll still come back. But if you destroy their achievements, and their history, then it’s like they never existed.” The Monuments Men risked their lives to protect Europe’s artistic achievements. Thanks to the MFAA, thousands if not millions of artworks were saved from destruction and returned to their rightful owners. While the movie effectively conveys an emotionally compelling story, it is less successful in creating a completely factual representation of history’s true events.

What did you think of the movie? And what’s your opinion of repatriation?

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