It has all the makings of a big-budget movie: war, heroes, and a treasure hunt for priceless art … oh, and the rescue of Western civilization as we know it.
But George Clooney’s new film, Monuments Men, is not the stuff of fantasy. It’s based on the true story of a World War II platoon of non-soldiers who went to Europe to protect historic buildings and rescue masterpieces the Nazis had stolen—and return them to their rightful owners.
Clooney directed, wrote and stars in the film, opening Friday. The movie also stars Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville and Cate Blanchett.
Clooney says he was drawn to the Monuments Mens’ commitment “to their country, to the great works of art of the world. It's pretty unbelievable that they put their lives at risk for a principle they felt that deeply," he said recently.
But the true-life tale is just as compelling as any film.
The Monuments Men were a group of about 345 men and women from 13 countries who volunteered for service in the newly-created Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, or MFAA, during World War II. They weren’t professional soldiers by a long shot—few had picked up a rifle before volunteering their services. Most were museum directors, curators, art scholars and educators, artists, architects, and archivists. (These officers were much older than the average soldier, and were nicknamed “Aged Military Gentlemen on Tour” by the army—ouch!)
Their lofty mission? To save as much of Europe’s culture as possible…in the middle of WWII fighting. At first, that meant helping to protect Europe's historic monuments from Allied bombing. (Indeed, telling colonels and generals what not to bomb didn’t go over that well at the time.) After the war in Europe was won, their mission was to create collection points to retrieve and catalog private property that had been looted and to return it to their countries of origin.
The Monuments Men not only had the foresight to understand the grave threat to some of the greatest cultural and artistic achievements of Western civilization, but they also risked their lives in order to save art.
They were in a race against time. In the spring of 1945, the tide of the war had turned, and Adolf Hitler knew it. Germany was losing ground to the Americans and the British in the West and the Soviets on the East. On March 19, 1945, Hitler issued an order officially titled "Demolitions on Reich Territory Decree," which became known as the "Nero Decree." Basically, the German army was ordered to destroy everything—including historic buildings and priceless works of art—as the Reich fell. So the Monuments Men marched in—and sometimes in front of—troops as they entered liberated areas to rescue the stolen art before the Germans could set it on fire.
In the last year of the war, the Monuments Men tracked and located more than five million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis. In the years that followed, they returned the pieces to their rightful owners or countries of origin.
Monuments Men opens in theaters on Friday, Feb. 7.