Clooney’s film focuses on a different kind of war tragedy, and its central question is just as valid during peacetime.
Let’s get a couple of things out of the way so that I can start rambling toward wherever my thoughts take me:
- The Monuments Men is a fine movie. Reviews have been mixed, but it’s good enough.
- Hitler was a bad man.
- Spoiler alert: The Allies win.
Okay, now let’s get to the rambling. I walked out of the theater not 15 minutes ago, so my thoughts are still scattered. My childhood was spent in the shadow of the shadow of the Big One, my grandfather one of those unfortunate bastards who stumbled upon and liberated the camp at Mauthausen. What that man saw and what it did to his insides weighs heavily on my mind still. Few days pass when I don’t think about the senseless brutality of World War II, an event that ended twenty years before I was born.
But it didn’t. Aside from the firsthand impact the war had on my (and every other) family, WWII’s repercussions are still felt to this day: the geopoliticial landscape, the postwar boom in America, the national shame felt by Germany and Japan. Given any topic from economics to the rise of the middle class, one can play a kind of six degrees of Kevin Bacon that leads back to the War. Everything from your Volkswagen to the notion that college is for everyone snakes a tendril back to that horrible era. Flying somewhere soon? Thank the Germans for jet aircraft.
World War II, at least in the public consciousness, is the last noble war, the last with an objective upon which both the military and civilians agreed: Hitler was a bad man, and he must be stopped. There was no ambiguity there, with exception to a few like Charles Lindbergh who staked their reputations on the wrong horse. The Fuhrer’s crimes against humanity are well-documented, and millions were willing to risk their lives to stop him. Given the horror of the camps and the brutality displayed by the invading Germans I imagine that for most Allied volunteers there was no question that their lives were worth the effort.
And that’s pretty much where my mind wanders when I think about my grandfather and the sadness that he carried with him. What a tremendous weight to toss onto a 22 year-old corporal’s back.
I knew other bits and pieces, of course. I knew that the Nazis burned books and destroyed so called “degenerate art,” the works of modern masters like Picasso. I knew that they hoarded gold and art and hid both away in German mines, and I knew that after the War the Allies made an effort to return the plundered goods. Beyond that I never gave the matter much thought.
The Monuments Men at least got my brain moving in that direction. Clooney’s film depicts a middle-aged group of seven men entrusted with finding and preserving important works of art from German theft or destruction. In reality the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program was comprised of almost 400 individuals, but let’s give George a break—that’s a bit much for a two hour film. The same holds true for the millions of pieces of plundered art: the film focuses on The Ghent Altarpiece and a Madonna and Child by Michelangelo rather than overwhelm the narrative.
Those seven characters become emotionally invested in those two works of art, and this is where the central question of the film arises: Is art worth dying for? Dying to stop a madman, sure. Dying to save millions of lives, of course. But would you be willing to sacrifice your life to save a world treasure?
It’s a question that has its own tangle of tendrils. Once one works the hypothetical of leaping Jackie Chan style in front of the Mona Lisa or taking out the bad guys before they blow up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, “what is worth dying for” encroaches upon other aspects of 21st century life. Are pristine wetlands and virgin rainforests worth dying for? What about the rights of children to attend school without risk of being shot? How about privacy, or human trafficking?
I guess the answer depends on the person, and in the end I guess that’s what’s worth taking from The Moments Men. As long as some of us are willing to put it all on the line for what we believe, the rest of us are going to be okay. Thanks again, Grandpa.