Burl’s take on ‘Monuments Men’


John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban and Bill Murray.

We had a conversation about movies a couple of days back, and “Monuments Men” came up. Since interest has been expressed, I thought I’d share a link to our own Burl Burlingame’s review of the film.


Hitler and the Nazis were bad dudes. They set the bar on being bad dudes. They not only were intent on dominating the world (to them, Europe WAS the world), the Nazi mission statement involved wiping out entire cultures and races. Not just killing them, but erasing them from history. The focus of “Monuments Men” is the rescue of priceless art seized by the Nazis, either as booty or to be destroyed.

Actually, “priceless” is too weak a word. Maybe irreplaceable….

The “Monuments Men” were a group of older artists, architects, historians and other scholars drafted by the army to save artwork and architecture from Nazi nihilism. They came under fire, just like other soldiers, but their mission was to save the best works yet produced by humanity….

In order to sell the film to disinterested modern audiences, Clooney adopts a wisecracking, ironic tone that is surface-level entertaining. But this creates a distance between characters and situation, and “Monuments Men” never quite catches fire. This stand-offishness also undercuts the true horror of the Nazi menace and makes them cartoons and buffoons. It’s very “Hogan’s Heroes.”…

That doesn’t mean it’s not an entertaining couple of hours, and if folks learn a thing or two about this historical niche, that’s swell. I liked “Monuments Men,” but nobody is going to love it.

Oh, just go read the whole thing. As usual with Burl, it’s well-written…

12 thoughts on “Burl’s take on ‘Monuments Men’

  1. Bryan Caskey

    Excellent review, Burl.

    My wife was making a similar point about Clooney being a negative on this movie because it looks like he plays the same character that he usually plays — the wisecracking cool guy in charge of the group. She would have rather had an unknown actor playing the main role. With all the big-name stars she said it was like Clooney’s “Ocean’s Eleven” for WWII.

    I tend to agree. I can’t think of a movie with Clooney in it (maybe with the exception of “O Brother Where art Thou”) where I was utterly absorbed by Clooney’s character and forgot that it was Clooney. For me, a great actor makes you think that they really are that character. Clooney rarely does that for me.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I think of him as more of a movie star than an actor. Still, he’s been very good in a number of flicks. I praised his work in “Gravity,” and I thought he was great in “Up in the Air.”

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I also liked “Michael Clayton.”

        When I say “movie star,” I don’t mean to run him down. I mean he’s a star like Cary Grant — who was often pretty awesome (all time favorite — “His Girl Friday”).

  2. Maggie

    I agree with Burl. I’m a huge fan of The Great Escape, and I know this was Clooney’s (failed) attempt to catch that spirit. Monuments Men is a fantastic story but a mediocre movie. There are, however, 2 GREAT movies on this subject. “The Train” with Burt Lancaster, directed by John Frankenheimer, gets a rare 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And an excellent documentary, “The Rape of Europa,” tells the true story of a true heroine, Rose Valland, who was the inspiration for the Cate Blanchett character.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Maggie, welcome back! Where’ve you been?

      When I was a kid, I had no hesitation when asked what my favorite movie was — it was “The Great Escape.” While I’ve seen others I like better since then, I still love it, own it on DVD, and watch it again every couple of years.

      But one of my daughters nearly ruined it for me when she pointed out something that should have been obvious, but which I had always missed. I think it was the scene in which Hilts and Ives mouth off to the Kommandant, and get sent to the cooler for the first time. My daughter questions the bright, light, sprightly background music during the scene — which suggested we were supposed to think this was all a great lark.

      She probably noticed it for two reasons: First, she hadn’t grown up on a steady diet of movies produced by the WWII generation that indeed reflected an upbeat national attitude toward that conflict. This was the 60s, mind you — there was darker stuff right after the war, when memories were still fresh and raw, such as “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Pride of the Marines.” The tone of that scene was typical, and since I was used to it, I reacted as intended (See the brave champions of liberty thumb their noses at the representative of a repressive system!).

      Secondly, her grandfather, my father-in-law, was captured at the Battle of the Bulge and kept in a German Stalag for the rest of the war, and she was aware that it had been a horrible experience for him.

      I had always drawn a distinction between the serious “Great Escape” and such farce as “Hogan’s Heroes,” which really went overboard with the “being a prisoner of the Third Reich was tremendous fun” meme. I could appreciate that the latter was offensive, but I had missed that same tone in the former.

      So I felt defensive about this movie I loved, and it was momentarily tarnished in my mind. But I got over it. I stepped back and could see that, taken as a whole, the film was entirely respectful to the suffering of the POWs — especially the 50 murdered escapees.

      Hollywood is seldom able to avoid putting a little leavening into dark subjects. I think of “Stalag 17” as been a fairly dark treatment — yet even that had comic relief (the character “Animal,” and that other guy, his buddy). This trailer stresses the lighter side.

      1. Maggie

        Well, as a 13-year-old girl at the time, a lot of the appeal for me was Steve McQueen, David McCallum, John Leyton and all those dishy English accents. Not too concerned with either veritas or gravitas. But I agree that, in movies as in life, there is humor in the most serious situations. Stalag 17, a better movie, is a great example and probably reasonably realistic. My father had lots of funny stories and so did his buddy, an RAF pilot who escaped and was hidden for 2 days in a convent dressed as a nun.

    2. Bart


      “The Train” was one of Burt Lancaster’s best movies and the entire movie was compelling and did not have the moments where one lost interest in the story being played out on the screen. All of the characters were great, including the Nazi villain.

      I won’t take time to pay for or to watch Monuments Men because the reviews pretty much confirmed my impression of the movie when watching the trailers. On the other hand, we have to admire the men who undertook the task of trying to save the great art treasures the Nazis wanted to confiscate or destroy especially when one considers they were not soldiers in the usual sense of a combat soldier but faced the same dangers at times.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        One point The New Yorker review makes is that the works were not saved to go into museums. They were and remained in private collections, largely out of view.
        Takes a lot of the heroism down a notch. Saving humans would have been more heroic…

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    The New Yorker basically agrees with Burl. The tone is off, and the conflicts are seriously downplayed.

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