Cover to Reel: THE MONUMENTS MEN

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~post by Katie G.

I chose George Clooney’s star-driven rendition of The Monuments Men as the start of my venture into a twice monthly column that will add another voice to the venerable debate: Can a movie ever live up to the book?

The book The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel is a great romp into the territory of WWII. While staying firmly planted in non-fiction, this book has the feel of reading a novel. It’s filled with dialogue and great scenes straight from the journals and records of the Monuments, Fire Arts & Archives (MFAA) division of the U. S. Army. Peppered throughout the chapters are letters sent home that are filled with love and the humbled accounts of their grueling work on the front lines, met with opposition and a large lack of supplies, to save the cultural history of Western Europe.

Perhaps what makes this book really great, in my opinion, is the behind-the-curtain look at the megalomania & pure greed of the insatiable Third Reich’s Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) art-plundering division. These are two sides to the same story that would never be able to understand each other, but Edsel’s storytelling brings understanding and a very human touch.

This was not the case for me in Clooney’s movie. I could spend all day pointing out continuity errors and other reasons why this movie is, in my opinion, bad, and why, as a book adaptation, it’s even worse.

I’ll narrow down my grievances to the main three:

  1.  SENTIMENTALITY. Deserving of all the caps I just gave it. This movie, with it’s heavy-handed narration and hammy score, spends so much time trying to make you feel something – proud, sorrowful, indigestion – that it takes away from the narrative. In a nutshell: Clooney does Disney.
  2. The banality behind another war movie where Germans (and, don’t forget, the Russians) are served up as stereotypical fodder for American victory. Scenes are manipulated to show American might over pompous Germans with inflated egos. It’s pandering and it’s unnecessary. There were plenty of these figures in the Third Reich. But, there was also Emmerich Pochmuller, Nazi and General Director of the Mine at Altaussee, where the two most revered pieces of recovered artwork were found. Had he not felt a similar duty towards the art he was protecting, thousands of paintings, prints, books, tapestries, etc would be lost.
  3. Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Rose Valland (Claire Simone in the movie) is just disgraceful. She is the only female character in the book, but she’s a pivotal part of the history of the MFAA. She was clever and brave enough to protect so much of Paris’ great art through her work with The French Resistance by spying on the Nazis she worked with every day. In this movie, she’s demeaned into another instance of pandering – this time romantic. Read this book to learn about Rose, if nothing else.

The movie wasn’t completely without redeeming qualities. We’ll go with three, just to be fair and balanced:

  1. Casting. The names were changed to protect the identities from shoddy screenplay writing, but as I read the book it was easy to guess, and guess correctly, who was cast as whom. If only Clooney had used what was there to give them something they could have actually worked with.
  2. Bill Murray. Thank god, Clooney used some of the best scenes with Lt. Posey (Campbell in the movie). The casting proved itself here. Now, if only he’d given John Goodman the same chance with any of Walter Hancock (Garfield)’s tales.
  3. The best for last. There’s only one example of a successful attempt at movie adaptation here: Harry Ettlinger (Epstein in the movie). The Monuments Men starts, weaves in and out, and finally ends with Ettlinger’s story of how his Jewish family fled Germany by the skin of their teeth to America, his enlistment and quick citizenship, and finally his war efforts that found him safe and secure among the ranks of the MFAA instead of the front line.

His is a secondary story at best, in the book. Clooney takes Ettlinger and builds him into a character who you can follow throughout the movie and relate to. He’s the only one given any real depth. He leads us through the story, and we’re happy to ride along. He’s also played by a young kid I’ve never heard of before (Dimintri Leonidas), so he serves as a fresh-face among a bunch of heavy hitters.

This round of Cover v. Reel most definitely goes to the book. The Monuments Men is not only a quick read, but an enlightening one. It’s a refreshing spin on your Dad’s old WWII favorites.

Clooney’s movie is best saved for your next family gathering. With all the sentimentality of a Disney flick and a continual dose of Jerry & Ruskie brow-beating filling the minutes of The Monuments Men, your grandparents will be happy to sit down and watch with you. You can sit back and enjoy Bill Murray.

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Copies of The Monuments Men are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

2 thoughts on “Cover to Reel: THE MONUMENTS MEN

  1. I could not agree with you more! I thought that the movie handled things very poorly considering all that they had to work with. The Tarantino treatment (I found it very similar to Inglorious Basterds with the difference of course that that story was actually fictional) was so unnecessary and borderline disrespectful considering what these men accomplished. Rose Valland was an incredible woman who’s bravery and brilliance deserved more than this screenplay.

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