Monuments Men is about a group of soldiers assigned a mission to recover Europe’s most precious art works plundered by the Nazis in pursuit of Hitler’s obsession for a Fuhrer Museum. The men selected are passionate about art, although past the age that would otherwise have drawn them into the war. After completing basic training, the men land in France following the Normandy invasion and separate into groups of two in their search for locating the stolen art. As Germany’s defeat becomes inevitable, the teams hopscotch closer to the front lines while a Russian team has similarly been dispatched to recover pieces as reparations rather than to restore the works to their rightful owners.
Monuments Men is intended as a tribute to honor those men involved in the recovery effort and raise a philosophical question of whether preserving art is worth risking someone’s life. Unfortunately, the movie’s flaw derives from a series of whimsical scenes that detract from the film’s seriousness.
Acting on a mistaken belief that the old timers aren’t going through regular basic training, Walter Garfield casually stands up during an exercise where recruits are crawling on their stomachs under barbed wire as gunfire is shot above their heads. His surprised reaction when he’s told live ammunition was used is meant to elicit a laugh.
Along their journey, Walter Garfield and Jean Claude Clermont come under fire by a sniper. After an exchange between them about their families back home and who can’t afford the risk, they devise a plan to create a diversion and advance toward the building where the sniper is hidden. When the sniper is trapped and revealed to be a small boy, he is practically dragged out by his ear as if scolding a child. It’s intended as a tease, because it’s difficult to demonize one’s enemy when he looks like a cherub.
From the outset and throughout the story, Lt. Stokes needs to procure equipment for his men in a mischievous manner, which serves as an example how the combat soldiers don’t take this mission seriously. Sadly, this idea is reinforced by the makers of the film inserting an inside joke about the title; the American team hears about the Russian team called the Trophy Brigade and question the silliness of its name when someone poses a response, “What do you think about the name the Monuments Men?”
With the backdrop of a bloody war raging, these story lines designed for comic effect lose sight of the fact that these men were risking their lives and doesn’t give their bravery and sacrifice its proper due.
Another misstep in the story relates to two pieces of work prominently featured: Michelangelo’s sculpture of Madonna and Child and the Panels from the Ghent Altarpiece. Although it is mentioned that these are important works of art, none of the characters explain why these particular works of art are important to them or the public at large, and therefore the characters don’t offer in their words why art is worth risking one’s life for or worth saving.
Monuments Men seems like a picture that was fun to make for cast and crew. It’s a pity that it came at the film’s expense.