Saturday, February 8, 2014


I love World War II movies, even stinkers like Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.”  For the record, I prefer Enzo G. Castellari’s made-in-Italy, World War II mission movie “The Inglorious Bastards” (1978) that Tarantino took and altered drastically with his remake.  Nevertheless, I haven’t seen a good World War II epic since Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) with Tony Hanks.  Everything after “Saving Private Ryan” pales in comparison to classics such as “A Bridge Too Far ,” “Battle of the Bulge,” “Beach Red,” “Castle Keep,” “Catch 22,” “Sands of Iwo Jima,” “The Bridge at Remagen,” “The Devil’s Brigade,” “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Great Escape,” “The Guns of Navarone,” “The Longest Day,” and “The Train.”  These seminal films appear with regularity during patriotic holidays on both AMC and Turner Classics.  Initially, I thought writer & director George Clooney’s “The Monuments Men” (** OUT OF ****) might tower above all the second-rate shrapnel that Hollywood has been shelling out like “Normandy,” “Company of Heroes,” “Battle Force,” “Fortress,” “Red Tails,” “Saints and Soldiers: Airborne Creed,” and “Pathfinders.”  Unfortunately, this fascinating chapter in World War II history about Allied soldiers who toiled to save the treasured paintings and sculptures of Western Civilization that Adolf Hitler looted during his 12-year reign as Der Führer amounts to a monumental bore.  Meantime, Clooney has assembled a superlative cast including “Private Ryan” himself Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett.  The production values look first-rate.  Clooney’s production designers and art directors shot the works with their $70-million budget to create sprawling scenes of bombed out towns and authentic aircraft laden military landing fields.  Furthermore, to accentuate the realism, they lensed these maneuvers on location in England and Germany, too.

“The Monuments Men” covers an overlooked chapter in American military history that occurred after the Allies broke through Hitler’s defenses on the French coast in 1944.  Clooney and co-scripter Grant Heslov, who co-produced and appears briefly as a doctor in a scene, adapted the history tome “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter.  This World War II movie focuses on an outfit of old-ball scholars, architects, and museum curators who sought to recover all the art works that Hitler pilfered and planned to place in a Nazi museum in his home town in Austria.  An earlier text “The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War” by Lynn H. Nichols documented this little known part of history.  Indeed, Public Broadcasting produced a documentary based on the Nichols book back in 2008.  The documentary is more exciting than anything that Clooney recreates in this static spectacle.  Burt Lancaster played a brave French railroad official in “The Train” (1964) who thwarted the Nazis from stealing art.

“The Monuments Men” resembles a 1960s era World War II blockbuster with its plethora of military uniforms and equipment.  World War II fanatics will appreciate the authentic Sherman tank that rumbles past the camera in two scenes.  No, you won’t find any M-48 Patton tanks masquerading as either Sherman or Tiger tanks.  Unfortunately, little violence occurs in this loquacious, leisurely 119 minute opus.  Two of our heroes die from enemy bullets with a minimum of bloodshed.  Two of them capture a Nazi youth sniper during a brief exchange of rifle fire.  “The Bridge at Remagen” contained a similar scene.  A firefight breaks out in a peaceful pasture between Nazis and American G.I.s after one of our heroes spots a stallion and stops to admire it.  A Nazi officer fires his pistol at an off-screen Allied officer and mortally wounds him. Neither are shown in the same shot dramatically slinging lead at each other.  George Clooney swings a pick-ax at a brick wall.  Possibly the worst thing that occurs on screen is several actors smoke cigarettes.  The smoking is virtually pervasive.  Remember, Uncle Sam stuck cigarettes in K-rations.  Sometimes a rare profane word is uttered.  Otherwise, “The Monuments Men” amounts to a lukewarm World War II movie that loiters on the peripheral of the action.  At one point, two of our heroes are in the Battle of the Bulge.  Clooney never cuts loose with a machine gun at the Nazis.  Indeed, our starry cast spends more time talking about what they are going to do than riddling at the enemy with lead.  Occasionally, Clooney shows us the evil Nazis as they gloat over the stolen artwork.  Our heroes do undergo basic training.  At one point, a character stops crawling on an obstacle course and stands up while a G.I. is firing a machine gun.  Later, he is appalled when he learns that the soldier was blasting away with bullets instead of blanks!  “The Monuments Men” shuns conspicuous blood and gore as much as it avoids dramatic conflict. 

“The Monuments Men” suffers from several shortcomings.  First, characterization is one-dimensional.  We are given little insight into the heroes.  Each has a nominal scene that introduces them, but Clooney is more interested in what they are doing than who they are.  Cate Blanchett plays the most provocative character.  She served as a secretary to the Nazis and maintained a journal of their systemic looting of treasures from Paris.  Initially, she is imprisoned for collaborating with the Nazis, when she hated them.  After our heroes spring her she approaches them with suspicions until Matt Damon flashes his reassuring smile.  Second, the storytelling is episodic.  Various men go off on various adventures.  Third, the adventures lack pugnacity.  Nothing memorable either happens or is uttered.  Fourth, Clooney abhors dramatize anything.  A land mind scene in a cave could have yielded a little sweat and anxiety, but Clooney plays it strictly for amusement.  Fifth, the orchestral theme music fails to bolster the action and often sounds like it is undercutting it.  Watching “The Monuments Men” is the equivalent of fatigue duty.

No comments: