The Monuments Men is easy to digest

The Monuments Men risked their lives saving art – and probably Jan de Jong's job as senior lecturer in Art History as well.

World War II not only cost millions of people their lives, it also destroyed thousands of great works of art. In 1943 a group of American art historians and curators, helped by some from France and Britain, stood firm to prevent our cultural artefacts from being destroyed. The Monuments Men went to the European mainland in search of pieces that had been stolen by the Germans.

The movie is quite accurate

‘In fact, this whole movie is quite accurate historically’, Jan de Jong says. ‘The instigator of this operation knew someone who could reach President Roosevelt. Roosevelt supported the initiative and called for assistance from England, where the operation started.’

Art historian Jan de Jong // Photo Pepijn van den Broeke

Art historian Jan de Jong // Photo Pepijn van den Broeke

George Stout, played by George Clooney in the movie, is the leader of the Monuments Men. He assembles a team of seven art specialists and puts them through basic military training before leading them into France. The fact that the team consists of crusty old men who are nowhere near fit enough to put up a decent fight does not prevent them from going.

Sawn into pieces

Two works receive specific attention in the movie: Michelangelo’s Madonna With Child and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. ‘The Ghent Altarpiece, from 1430, is seen as one of the most important works of art we know’, says de Jong. ‘This wasn’t the first time it had been stolen either. It had travelled quite some distance. It was saved from the ‘Beeldenstorm‘, when protestant Dutch destroyed the statues in hundreds of catholic churces in 1566, Napoleon stole it, it was sawn into pieces, later returned and then retaken by the Nazis before finally being returned to Ghent.’

Hitler wanted both pieces placed in the Führermuseum in Linz, his birthplace, and said that if he was killed, they should be burned along with all other pieces of art. The Monuments Men did not allow that to happen.

Hollywood feel-good plot

The focus of the movie is European high art, but the execution is clearly American. Directed by Clooney and starring himself, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett and John Goodman, the movie has an average Hollywood feel-good plot. Damon steps on a landmine – ‘Why would you do that?’ and whenever he speaks French, he is asked to speak English.

The Russians are, of course, depicted as barbarians, using ‘trophy brigades’ to collect valuable art as a sort of payment for the damage they suffered. ‘There is some truth in that, though’, De Jong says. ‘Lots of art was taken back to Russia and only after the fall of the Iron Curtain have some works been returned to their owners. We estimate, however, that there are still countless pieces in Russian museums and private basements.’

Occupational hazard

‘The movie has a typical feel-good atmosphere, but the historical accuracy is nice to see’, says De Jong. ‘It annoys me when a movie has a lot of faults – an occupational hazard, I guess.’ Overall, The Monuments Men is a nice movie with a great cast – a little known but interesting story and a plot that’s easy to digest.