With the release of the much anticipated The Monuments Men on the near horizon, I felt it appropriate to share some thoughts on this real-life historical caper. Based on Robert Edsel's bestseller, the film is concentrated on the long-unsung scholars of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) commission. Edsel sums up the plot best in his book in stating, "To save the culture of your allies is a small thing. To cherish the culture of your enemy, to risk your life and the life of other men to save it, to give it all back to them as soon as the battle was won…it was unheard of, but that was exactly what [the] Monuments Men intended to do." While a majority of WWII flicks emphasize the heroic efforts of a specific platoon or naval crew, The Monuments Men is not alone by delving into themes of art or culture. Even though numerous older productions have been overlooked by the Band of Brothers generation of WWII movie buffs, many are worth your consideration nevertheless. Whether George Clooney's forthcoming adventure movie is a hit or not, below are eight films (in no particular order) that should be nice cinematic supplements to The Monuments Men.
The Train (1964)
In one of the ultimate action movies of the 1960s, director John Frankenheimer delivers a strong punch in this gritty black and white film starring Burt Lancaster. The veteran actor portrays a French station master attempting to undermine a shipment of stolen European artwork on a Nazi train trying to stay ahead of the Allied advance. Lancaster's unassuming passion for this nearly-lost treasure never quite overcomes his hatred of the Germans despite the fact he is risking his life in the name of priceless art. One can hardly blame his character when considering the villain he is up against--the irrepressible Colonel Von Waldheim played by the dominating and eerie Paul Scofield. The character of Von Waldheim sums of the German perspective of the film perfectly when stating, "A book is worth a few francs; we Germans can afford to destroy those. We all may not appreciate artistic merit, but cash value is another matter." Based in part on a memoir by French Resistance member Rose Valland (fictionalized by Cate Blanchett in The Monuments Men), The Train's impressive social and artistic commentary is as breathtaking as its action sequences featuring real trains colliding.
The Rape of Europa (2006)
This powerful documentary reveals Hitler's quest to conquer all "pure" artwork demonstrating classical Aryan values. Meanwhile, he sought to destroy "inferior" works by Jews and modernists. The film dramatically interprets the importance of culture to the Third Reich, explaining Albert Speer's designs to perfect German society through art and architecture. The audience learns of Hitlers intentions of constructing a Führermuseum in the Austrian city of Linz to showcase his trove of stolen Germanic-style works from all over Europe. Actress Joan Allen's narration lends itself to the gravity of the dramatic events and ideas discussed. Perhaps most evocative of all are the interviews of actual Monuments Men who participated in the retrieval of the lost European works. Their recollections of their crusade are emotional and incredibly insightful. Co-produced by The Monuments Men author Edsel, The Rape of Europa is the true story of these GIs without the gloss of Hollywood fabrication or artistic license.
The Ritchie Boys (2004)
Monuments Man (or boy rather) Harry Ettlinger escaped Germany with his family in 1938. Having a firm knowledge of the German language, culture, and people, this eighteen year old Jew served an important role as translator and aide in the efforts of the MFAA. He was far from the only soldier who found himself in such a position. The Ritchie Boys is a documentary that effectively conveys the hardships many Jewish immigrants faced as they fled the horrors of fascism. Later, many of them understandably enlisted in the U.S. Army to lend their knowledge of their homelands in the name of vengeance and justice. Upward of 9,000 of these recruits were trained in psychological warfare operations and propaganda dissemination at Fort Ritchie in the hills of western Maryland. Their methods of (non-torturous) interrogation and prying information from German prisoners of war were both creative and ingenious. Much like Ettlinger, many experienced the horror of liberating their old hometowns only to find them in ruins with scores of their friends and family killed. While lacking the more substantial budget of The Rape of Europa, not all documentaries require massive sums of money to be dynamic in their storytelling.
Castle Keep (1969)
In what is admittedly the most unusual of all films in this listing, Sydney Pollack's Castle Keep was among a plethora of anti-war films debuting during the ugliest moments of the Vietnam conflict. Burt Lancaster returns to our selection as the unstable, one-eyed Major Abraham Falconer--an officer who leads a battered squad of GIs into the shelter of an ancient European castle in the winter of 1944. To varying degrees, each soldier there becomes enamored with the historic structure and its extravagant qualities. Among them is the character of Captain Lionel Beckman (played by Patrick O'Neil). The former art scholar is shocked to discover that Major Falconer plans to protect the castle and its culture by defending it amidst the German break into the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge. Beguiled by European ingenuity and the castle's majesty, the men of the squad agree to the defense--all but ensuring its destruction in the oncoming clash. In the end, Castle Keep reveals that the senselessness of war destroys not only lives, but culture that should live on in perpetuity.
Let us rewind a bit to the interwar period. Much of Europe is in a shambles and the radical elements of society are vying for power as capitulated empires attempt to rebuild themselves. Individuals, too, are trying to cope with the personal devastation the war has wrought. Enter Max Rothman (played by John Cusack), a fictional Jewish art dealer from Munich who has also lost an arm in the closing stages of the Great War. While readjusting to civilian life, Max kindles a friendship with a disgruntled fellow veteran who has turned to art as a means of funneling his rage about German defeat. The young artist's name--Adolf Hitler. The frustrated Austrian and his unlikely Jewish mentor walk a careful balancing act between arts and politics. Hitler is lured toward both but cannot decide upon his true vocation. History ultimately tells us which path he took, but how did he reach that point? The film begs the question: What if Hitler had not been denied entry into the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna following WWI? Would global conflict still have come about if he had? Regardless, Max shows us how artistic endeavors can be closely associated with social and political movements in manners both beneficial and shocking. Like the film's tagline suggests: "Art + Politics = Power." Eat some sugar while you are watching this one. You'll need the boost at the film's conclusion.
The Ghost Army (2013)
GI artist save the day again--not through conservation, but deception! This wonderful PBS documentary portrays the equally overlooked role of the 1,000 plus men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops. This unit was better known as the "Ghost Army" for its ability to fool the Germans into believing false information, movements, and locations. This elite and covert force was not comprised of OSS members or master strategists. Rather, they were artists, cartoonists, stage designers, painters, old movie crews, and overly creative personalities. And people have the audacity to claim that the arts and humanities do not matter. From the summer of 1944 through the end of the conflict this outfit deceived "Jerry" time and again. "Painstakingly recorded sounds of armored and infantry units were blasted from sound trucks; radio operators created phony traffic nets; and inflatable tanks, trucks, artillery and even airplanes were imperfectly camouflaged to be just visible to enemy reconnaissance.
'It’s the highest kind of creativity in the art of war,' said Retired General Wesley Clark." With missions such as Operation Fortitude, these individuals helped deflect the full might of the German military during the Normandy invasion. Many of these military con artists went on to acclaimed art careers in the following years. Little did many of their admirers know that it was the Second World War in which they unveiled their most important work.
Is Paris Burning? (1966)
This early screenwriting effort of Francis Ford Coppola is as forgotten as the story it tells. Taking place two months following D-Day, German General Dietrich von Choltitz is ordered to destroy Paris before the rapidly approaching Allies can recapture the historic city. Choltitz is torn in his duties between his obligations as a soldier, pleas to preserve the rich Parisian culture, and his own quiet doubts about the sanity of his Führer. Much like The Longest Day, the movie has dozens of subplots with an international cast as the massive story unfolds. We see the conflicting views and actions of the Free French forces in determining exactly how they plan to save their beloved city. Nazi commanders scramble to evacuate the town, planting demolition charges on the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. A colorful scene with George Patton (Kirk Douglas) and Omar Bradley (Glenn Ford) conveys the Allied dilemma of whether to save the city's treasures or instead continue pushing toward Germany. Orson Welles's highlighted moment as Consul Nordling comes when he begs of Choltitz not to destroy Paris: "It's a thousand years of history...turned to dust" if you carry this out. Rather, "History will be grateful to you for having saved a very beautiful city." In this film, the architecture and atmosphere of Paris are as much characters as the excellent ensemble cast. The black and white film vividly converts to color in its final moments, symbolizing the joy of liberation and the preservation of French culture from Nazism.
And just for fun...
Kelly's Heroes (1970)
Yes, yes, I know. Clint Eastwood's band of GI misfits in no way resembles the educated, sophisticated, and high-purposed Monuments Men. But who doesn't enjoy a wartime caper with an all-star cast and plenty of comic relief? Kelly's Heroes was rather revolutionary for its time and far more entertaining than Castle Keep. These "heroes" go completely against the grain of the traditional WWII film and come much closer to resembling hippies of the Vietnam era--especially Donald Sutherland's hilariously whacky character of "Oddball." ("Why don't you knock it off with them negative waves?") This film's soldiers are tired, grim, and simply don't give a damn about the war anymore. Their solution? Rob a Nazi-held bank filled with gold bars and call it quits. I also have little doubt that some of the great one-liners from Heroes served as some inspiration for Clooney's own comedic relief in The Monuments Men.
There is much we can learn from all of these films. Perhaps above all else, we can gain a sense of the importance of art--if not on canvas or buildings, then on Kodak or Panavision. As the real-life Monuments Men show us, it is difficult to place monetary value on culture, or man's efforts to save it. As "Oddball" noted, "Have a little faith, baby."