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February 12, 2014

'The Monuments Men' Brings History to Life

by Penelope Poulou

Is art worth risking life and limb for? This question lies at the heart of George Clooney’s WWII drama “The Monuments Men.” The film, directed and co-written by the actor, is based on the real story of a handful of men sent by the Allied forces to Europe to recover art stolen by the Nazis and return it to their rightful owners.

As WWII came to a close, President Roosevelt authorized a team of art experts to go to German-occupied Europe and salvage masterpieces looted by the Nazis.
 
George Clooney interprets the real life team leader, George Leslie Stout. From 1944-1945, Stout supervised the recovery and removal of several thousand works of art, hidden in salt mines, churches, and other locations in Europe.

The film and its cast bring to life, with some poetic license, the group called “The Monuments Men.”
 
A map of some locations of where the team traveled in Europe is now on display at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum in Washington.

Curator Kate Haw says the film accurately portrays the documents and pictures on display.

“Many of the Monuments’ Men came back from the war and became great figures in the museum field and academic field of art history," said Haw.

George Stout founded the first American art conservation laboratory. Captain James Rorimer went on to become the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Matt Damon's character in the film, James Granger, is based on Rorimer.

Character Claire Simone was, in real life, curator Rose Valland. She played a central role in the masterpieces' recovery.

“She was a curator who works at the Jeu de Paume, the museum of contemporary art," said actor Cate Blanchett, who was cast as Claire Simone in the film.

“She was watching all of these Nazi leaders choose the art and send it off to different places," said Damon.

“Rose Valland spoke German but she didn’t let the Nazis know that," Haw said. "And so, she listens carefully to what they were saying. She took copious notes of what was coming into the Jeu de Paume and where it went."

Without Valland’s inventory and pictures she gave Rorimer, many of these masterpieces could have been lost forever.

The Smithsonian exhibit pays tribute to the Monuments Men. But it's Hollywood’s more emotional rendition that has put the team and their operation on the map.