Adolf Hitler was the prototypical supervillain.
For generations now his name has been a byword for evil. If he had possessed the One Ring, he would've used it. If he could've carved his name on the moon, he would've defaced it. He didn't need to be lured to the Dark Side; as soon as he landed on history's pages, he was already there. And some of his nefarious plots feel like they were pulled straight from the pages of Lex Luthor's megalomaniacal handbook.
Like stealing the Western world's greatest art. All of it.
It was a perk of European conquest: As Hitler's troops stormed through the continent, they'd loot museums, cathedrals and private homes, swiping da Vincis and Vermeers along the way. Every new foray meant a new painting for Hermann Göring's dining room, a new sculpture for Heinrich Himmler's study. The best of the best would eventually be funneled into Hitler's own grandiose Fuhrer Museum, where anyone could see—with anyone being defined, naturally, as good Nazis.
But crime doesn't pay, not even when it's perpetrated by history's most notorious ne'er-do-well. By 1944, Hitler and his Axis of Evil were in retreat and Germany was caught in a set of high-pressure pincers—the massive Soviet Union closing in on the East, the United States and Britain in the West.
And as the Allied soldiers pushed forward, a cadre of art authorities and scholars were with them—searching, recovering and, if possible, returning works of art to their rightful owners. It wasn't easy: In this quest for literal buried treasure, the Nazis left few maps where an "X" marked the spot. Nor was it safe. Some of these art hunters—dubbed "Monuments Men"—would end up giving their lives for the cause.
In the waning days of World War II, the drive to find these works grew ever more urgent because Hitler declared that if he couldn't have the art, no one could. He issued a directive popularly called the Nero Decree, which ordered soldiers to destroy everything of value as they retreated. The Monuments Men were suddenly in a race against time to save the Western world's greatest treasures … before Hitler's flame-throwing henchmen could torch them.
The Monuments Men's goal, as stated by leader Frank Stokes in the movie, is simple: "To protect what's left and find what's missing." And the seven artists and historians given this daunting onscreen task (in real life there were nearly 350 Monuments Men) try to do just that. They see their duty as not just rescuing a few dusty paintings, but saving the very foundations of Western civilization. For them, that's worth the hardships they'll endure and the risks they'll face. They come from different countries (Britain, France, the U.S. and even Germany), and none of them are soldiers. But even so, they become a band of brothers in a way, not only protecting art, but one another through the travails of war.
Nor are these Monuments Men the only folks sticking out their necks for art's sake. Claire Simone, a French woman roped into "helping" the hated Nazis, spends most of her time with them secretly cataloguing where they're taking these precious pieces. This act of aggression is more than enough to get her into some serious trouble (and it's suggested that her work did wind up killing her brother). But she perseveres and proves to be an invaluable ally to the Allies.
For Briton Donald Jeffries, the quest is more personal. We know little about his backstory—only that much of his promise was lost at the bottom of a liquor bottle. Both he and Stokes understand that this is a chance for him to redeem himself. And, indeed, he sobers up and serves well. When soldiers refuse to accompany him into the town of Bruges, Belgium, to safeguard Michelangelo's sculpture of the Madonna and Child, he goes alone.
Much of the artwork in play here is Christian, actually—faith being the prime subject of painting and sculpture for hundreds of years. We see dozens of religious-themed works, and the movie focuses specifically on two of them: the Ghent Altarpiece, an elaborate 15th-century work that helped make way for the Renaissance, and the aforementioned Madonna of Bruges. Both Jeffries and Stokes take their hats off in the presence of the latter. The priests ask Jeffries if he's Catholic. "I am tonight," he says, helping them barricade the door. We watch villagers working to save Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper from destruction.
The attitude toward these religious works, then, is one of respect but not necessarily spiritual reverence. The men understand their significance to the broader culture, but we don't see them moved by faith. Nevertheless, the breadth of religious imagery here reminds us of how important Christianity was in both our history and art. Characters spend time in churches, and we see priests doing their utmost to both protect the art with which they've been entrusted, and help the suffering and sick. (One piece of art is stolen through a ruse which prompts the priests to open their doors to a supposedly injured man.)
There's talk about married men cheating on their wives—and then we see an example of one who does not. Some of the works we see depict nudity, including panels of the Ghent Altarpiece. We glimpse a naked woman painted on the side of a plane.
Two Monuments Men die. One is shot in a cathedral. (We see him slumped against a wall, a darkening stain spreading on his uniform.) Another is hit in a crossfire. (He bleeds to death during the night.) Others are grievously injured. That same crossfire catches another man who spends the rest of the story walking with a cane. Still another steps on a land mine. He spends hours holding still as his friends try to figure out how best (or whether it's possible) to save him. A man has one of his teeth removed with a mallet.
Stokes and a comrade named Epstein bring an injured man into a room full of them, a makeshift tourniquet on his leg. A doctor examines the man (lifting a bloodstained garment off his chest). When Epstein asks if the guy'll be all right, the doctor says yes—but calls for a priest and some morphine before moving on.
There are allusions to Hitler's "final solution." We hear that Epstein's grandfather was sent to the Dachau death camp. The men find a barrel full of gold teeth. After the war, Stokes confronts an SS officer, who tells Stokes that he should thank him for what he did in those concentration camps.
Crude or Profane Language
Characters use the s-word in English at least seven times. It's also uttered in French (it'd be the m-word there) another four or five. Folks say "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑." God's name is misused a half-dozen or more times (most often paired with "d‑‑n"). Jesus' name is abused five or six times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
People often drink booze, and they make jokes about being a drunk. As mentioned, Jeffries has serious problems with alcohol. He says that he's sober, but when asked for how long, he replies, "Since 9 o'clock this morning." He smokes too. As he's taking his physical, both he and the doctor light up (with the doctor coughing up a storm). Because of the period, cigarettes are often used as an informal way to break the ice. For example, two Americans share a nervous smoke with a gun-toting German, and Stokes offers a cigarette to a man he's trying to question.
Other Negative Elements
A guy relieves himself out in the forest. (We see him from the back.) Two women spit in a champagne glass from which a Nazi official will be drinking. We hear the epithet "kraut."
The Monuments Men, according to this George Clooney-directed film, had a hard sell. What if rescuing a Botticelli means that a mother in Bristol or a sweetheart in South Carolina might lose the light of their life? War is destructive. We know this. The Monuments Men knew it too. And time and again they're asked, Is it worth it? Is it worth a life to save a painting?
Unforgiving arithmetic, this. And perhaps unfair. Few of us would willingly sacrifice the life of a loved one for a piece of art, no matter how precious.
But is that precious art worth saving?
A couple of years ago when a wildfire raged around my house, my family packed up what we deemed most valuable to us and sped away, leaving the rest in the hands of God. And what did we take? What most of you would take, of course: pictures. Records of our Thanksgivings together and trips to Disneyland. Kids blowing out candles or walking across a stage. Grandparents gone. Moments preserved. Our memories. Our shared histories. A record of what's most precious to us.
Art is like that, and maybe even more so. In the strange alchemy of expression and creation, it imbues more than a moment in time or an idealized scene. It somehow conveys what we love and hate, what we value and embrace. What we care about. What we would fight for. What we would die for.
The Monuments Men would sacrifice themselves for this art—this record of our culture's hopes and dreams, our loftiest ambitions and darkest moments. They don't believe they're rescuing a color-daubed canvas, a relic of an age long past. They're preserving who we are. And, as such, they're willing to risk their very lives.
According to the movie, the real Monuments Men saved more than 5 million paintings, sculptures, church bells, Torahs and other treasures. We can't know how much was still lost, of course, but we can be grateful for what was saved.
It's a message that comes through boldly in this well-crafted film, in spite of some occasional content blemishes (profane language, for instance), scratches across the grain of grand brushstrokes, if you will.
Is it art? Perhaps time will tell. In a century or two, if some intrepid scholars try to save the last Monuments Men DVD from the world's latest supervillain, we'll have our answer.