The Monuments Men

I read the book The Monuments Men sometime in the last couple of weeks, and sat down and watched the movie today.

First of all, I really liked the book. I was surprised at some of the scope of the book, sometimes branching out into aspects of the war that I didn’t think would connect with the story of these men.

For the most part, the Monuments Men worked on their own: with so few of them, one man was often covering large areas: Rorimer covering Seventh Army’s territory, and so on. And then the relative low ranks of the Monuments officers, and the obscurity of their mission, making it difficult sometimes to do their job: even get to the Continent from England.

Lots of little adventures in getting there on time, not getting there in time, seeing the state of things that were left, trying to hunt down the things that were taken, those who would destroy everything, and those who risked to protect it, at considerable risk to themselves.

The blocked-up mine tunnel that contained treasure, and the one that contained something rather different. The kid’s rabbit.

The movie, of course, was different. Not having the time to follow so many different stories, the Monuments Men are working together most of the time, and working together in small teams for the rest of the time, with the exception of Matt Damon’s character, who worked on his own for most of the movie.

Many of the events in the movie are recognisable from the books. There are some things that were outright made-up for the movie: two that stand out are the airplane, and the land mine. Unfortunately, these two stand out as being completely unnecessary.

Names were changed in the movie, to protect the innocent. Clooney’s Frank Stokes seems to be based on George Stout, damon’s James Granger on James Rorimer, Cate Blanchett’s Claire Simone on Rose Valland,Dimitri Leonidas’ Sam Epstein on Harry Ettlinger.

Rose Valland, there should be a movie just about her. Some of her motivations and concerns came through Blanchett’s character, but sadly Valland of the book was a heck of a lot cooler than Simone of the movie.

The book also seemed to do better at making you feel more of the human effect, the looting of personal possessions being like wiping those peoples’ memories from the earth. And on a less individual level, the terrible destruction of Monte Cassino by the Allies, the book managed to convey better exactly how that was a tragedy than the film did.

That’s not to say the movie didn’t try, though. Or even always do it particularly badly. I’m just not sure it had quite the room to breathe as it needed to.

That’s the problem with being spoiled with something like “Band Of Brothers” – so many more things would benefit from being in that format.

There’s something that doesn’t work for me about fictionalising all the people – doing it at the same time as saying, “we must remember the people who did these things and saved all this art”. How are you going to remember Ronald Balfour or Walter “Hutch” Huchthausen, who actually died during the war, when you’re being shown “Donald Jeffries” and “Jean Claude Clermont” [SPOILERS] who didn’t even exist, but died in the movie.

That didn’t really make a lot of sense.

Where the movie was stronger than the book, however, was that the book had to talk about a whole bunch of pieces of art, but the film could actually show them to you. Like some pieces important to both book and film: the Bruges Madonna, and the Ghent Altarpiece.

The Ghent Altarpiece is weird. It’s well painted, and all that, but… it’s kind of like a complete reimagining of the iconostasis, and having become familiar with the latter over the last few years (who and what’s where, and why), the differences in content, where the overall shape is similar… it’s weird.

Summary: book much better than movie, movie on its own merits still pretty good, despite everything I’ve said so far.

“We do not want to destroy unnecessarily what men spent so much time and care and skill in making … [for] these examples of craftsmanship tell us so much about our ancestors … If these things are lost or broken or destroyed, we lose a valuable part of our knowledge about our forefathers. No age lives entirely alone; every civilisation is formed not merely by its own achievements but by what it has inherited from the past. If these things are destroyed, we have lost a part of our past, and we shall be the poorer for it.”
-British Monuments Man Ronald Balfour, draft lecture for soldiers, 1944.
The Monuments Men book, p371

As ancient churches are destroyed in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, as the still-recent riots in Egypt saw mummies destroyed, as post-Soviet Russia still is trying to restore the Christianity it had before, (the physical things, the practice, the festivities that Communism tried to co-opt and replace, and the sifting of the genuine from the replacement), as England’s faith, landscape and culture has changed many times over the years, from its Christianity pre-Rome/East schism, through Henry VIII and the devastating Protestant/Catholic back-and-forth (some remains under the care of English Heritage) (and there are some obscure physical monuments and interesting cultural monuments around)…

With all of this, there’s things everywhere that need documented, recorded, [i]understood[/i], preserved in one form or another.

Maybe we’re always on the brink of losing so much. How much can we save, and in what ways?

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