THE MONUMENTS MEN
About The Film
"The story of the Monuments Men is one that really very few people know,"
says George Clooney, who returns to the director's chair for the story of a
small group of artists, art historians, architects, and museum curators who
would lead the rescue of 1000 years of civilization during World War II in his
new film, The Monuments Men. "Artists, art dealers, architects - these were men
that were far beyond the age that they were going to be drafted into a war or
volunteer. But they took on this adventure, because they had this belief that
culture can be destroyed. If they'd failed, it could have meant the loss of six
million pieces of art. They weren't going to let that happen - and the truth of
the matter is, they pulled it off."
The chance to make a World War II movie was extremely attractive to Clooney
and his writing and producing partner, Grant Heslov. "There's a certain romance
around these movies - The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone,
The Bridge on the River Kwai," says Clooney. "In those movies, you fell in love
with the characters and the actors as much as the story. And we thought The
Monuments Men was a great chance to cast interesting contemporary actors
together for our version of that kind of movie - it's a fun and entertaining way
to do it."
Part of the drama of the film is that all of the Monuments Men are so
unsuited to serving as soldiers in wartime. "Wars are fought by 18-year-olds,"
says Clooney. "Once you get to the John Goodmans and the Bob Balabans and the
George Clooneys, you know - these guys are not getting drafted." Heslov adds:
"They did it because it was clear that they were the only people who could do
"Actually, we never really fully thought of this as a war film - it was a
heist film," says Clooney. "And then, the first day, we got to the set, and
everybody put on their uniforms and helmets."
Clooney was inspired to tackle The Monuments Men as a feature film not only
because of its exciting and dramatic subject matter, but because it marked a
sharp, decisive break from his most recent film, The Ides of March. "We were
very proud of that film, but it was contemporary, and very small - and also
cynical," says Heslov.
"We've made some cynical films, but in general, we really aren't cynical
people," Clooney continues. "We wanted to do a movie that wasn't cynical, a
movie that was straightforward, old-fashioned, and had a positive forward
movement to it."
In their search for material, Heslov mentioned that he had recently read the
book The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, and brought the
subject matter to Clooney. Here was a chance to tell an optimistic story on an
epic scale - a true story with huge stakes.
"I was living in Florence, walking across the Pontevecchio Bridge - the only
bridge that wasn't destroyed by the Nazis as they fled in 1944 - and I wondered,
this was the greatest conflict in history...how were all of these cultural
treasures saved, and who saved them?" Edsel asks. "I wanted to find out the
The answer was the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives group, which would go to
the front lines and, for the first time, try to save the treasures that could be
saved. "Culture was at risk," says Clooney. "You see it time and time again. You
saw it in Iraq - the museums weren't protected, and you saw how much of their
culture was lost because of that."
"Even today, people are still trying to get back the art that was looted from
their families by the Nazis," Heslov says, noting that just recently, a treasure
trove of looted art was discovered in a Munich apartment - 1,500 works worth
$1.5 billion, paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Dix, and other artists that had
been thought to be lost.
"I think what that goes to show is that this is not a story that ended in
1945 - the search for missing art goes on today," Heslov continues. "There are
still thousands of works that are still lost. There are paintings that are
hanging in people's homes or hidden in plain sight on the walls of museums. Can
you imagine if all of that had just been destroyed? It would have been a
"This story opens up the Second World War in a way that gives you a different
perspective on it," says Cate Blanchett, who plays a key role as Claire Simone,
a woman who holds the key to the secret location of thousands of priceless
pieces of stolen art." "These men were spurred on by a higher ideal." So many of
the works that we take for granted in the great museums of the world were
returned by this band of men - it was a near impossible task. "Absurd, in a way:
non military men going to the front lines and asking generals to stop bombing a
certain church or area to save a window, or a sculpture or mural - you wonder
how "they were able to save anything at all." It's an extraordinary, selfless
thing that they did, done to preserve history."
Though the Monuments Men had the support of FDR and General Eisenhower, they
did face a challenge in embedding themselves in the field. "Eisenhower was very
keen on the idea - he wanted to make sure that there was something left when the
war was over - and the war was going to be over very soon," says Clooney. "It
was something he came to, after Allied bombing destroyed an ancient abbey that
really didn't need to be destroyed. So it was important not just to protect the
art from the Nazis, but from the Allies' own exploits as they pushed toward the
end of the war. The Allies were blowing everything up, so they had this
realization that culture can be destroyed - not just by the Germans, but by us."
Edsel says that many museum directors in the US had concerns about the art
and cultural treasures that could be lost in the war, but that they were working
at cross purposes - each director with his own plan - rather than in concert.
"George Stout - who would later become the unofficial leader of the Monuments
Men - made some efforts, but he gave up on it - he figured no one was going to
approve the idea of a bunch of middle aged art historians, architects, and
artists running around with combat soldiers." But then Roosevelt approved the
idea - and not a moment too soon. "In August 1943, the Allies nearly destroyed
The Last Supper inadvertently," Edsel continues. "I think that set off the alarm
bells and accelerated getting the monuments officers into the field."
Edsel says that one might expect that soldiers fighting a war would not be
receptive to being told what they could and could not blow up - but it's just
the opposite. "Much to their surprise - and we found this in their letters home,
over and over again - there was only mild resistance at the beginning, and that
quickly gave way to soldiers asking, 'How are we doing? Have we saved any
churches? Have we found any paintings?' The military started getting pretty
The Monuments Men were also working against a ticking clock. As the Allies
closed in on Berlin, Hitler was unwilling to accept unconditional surrender -
and if he couldn't have Germany, no one else would either. "It became known as
the 'Nero Decree,' Clooney explains. "Hitler said, 'If I die, destroy
everything' - bridges, railroad tracks, communications equipment - and that was
taken to mean the art, too. Everything."
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