Monuments men

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Friday, March 14, 2014


WAS it worth it?” asked US President Truman, referring to the death of a soldier while trying to prevent the Michelangelo sculpture, “Madonna and Child,” from being stolen by Nazi soldiers from a Belgian church during World War II.

This is one of the most important scenes in “The Monuments Men,” a film written, directed and produced by George Clooney, who plays Frank Stokes, a character loosely based on George L. Stout (art conservation specialist and museum director) in the non-fiction book, “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.”

War is unforgiving and it is the responsibility of good men to bring it to an end, prevent further bloodshed and restore order. An Allied group under the Monuments, Fire Arts, and Archives program, had a more focused assignment of recovering stolen cultural items and preventing their destruction by Adolf Hitler, who issued the Nero Decree to destroy all German possessions if Hitler died or Germany lost the war.

It is amazing how Clooney was able to put out a remarkable film that recounts the terror, anguish and foolishness of war while at the same time injecting humor, humanity and heroism in it. “The Monuments Men” follow the difficult task of passionate arts professionals who wore military uniforms, were made to carry guns and conduct search operations and were, sadly, treated indifferently by regular officers and soldiers.

The film is respectful of the real persons portrayed. Instead of creating celluloid caricatures, director Clooney depicted individuals under the grim impact of war even as a raw and emotive rendition of a Christmas song played on the background, a helpful soldier held the hand of an infantryman in his dying moment and while Bill Murray’s character, Sgt. Richard Campbell, struggled in his loneliness.

One tends to ponder on the thought that while nations fight wars, individual soldiers have hearts longing for peace. This is beautifully illustrated in the scene when a young German soldier encountered two of the monuments men.

The battlefield is not for artists, and we find two men die in pursuit of their mission. But the others carried on, fired up by the sacrifices of their dead colleagues and pressured by the destructive trail of the withdrawing Nazis. Also, the team competed with the advancing Russian Army that sought the looted cultural items as war reparation.

Frank Stokes, in the final frames, responded to President Truman’s question in the affirmative. Fast forward, the film shows an elderly Stokes with his grandson appreciating the recovered “Madonna and Child” inside the same Belgian church where it was stolen.

As I left the theater, I felt guilty because of how little I have spent time visiting museums and for failing to acknowledge the creative people who made the art works, the curators who preserved these and heroes, like the monuments men (345 men and women from thirteen nations), who sacrificed their lives for us and for future generations to appreciate these treasures.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on March 15, 2014.

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