LOS ANGELES — The 86th annual Academy Awards nominees had just been announced that morning, and Best Actress contender Cate Blanchett caused a bit of a stir when she entered the Four Seasons Hotel ballroom with her impressive array of all-male co-stars from “The Monuments Men.”
“All the mikes just go to Cate,” George Clooney joked as reporters placed their recorders in front of the panel of actors at the head table. “So, tell us about the Oscars,” he urged her kiddingly.
But after accepting a few congratulatory remarks for her performance in “Blue Jasmine,” Blanchett modestly yielded the center of attention to Clooney, who effortlessly took command of the Columbia Pictures news conference to promote his fact-based World War II adventure.
“The Monuments Men” is about a group of aging, combat-green artists, historians and museum officials who were tasked with saving and retrieving the great masterworks of Europe that had been stolen by the Nazis. Clooney stars as unit leader Lt. Frank Stokes, and also co-produced and co-wrote the script with Grant Heslov (who also partnered with Clooney to produce “August: Osage County” on location in Oklahoma).
“Yes, we wanted to make an entertaining film,” Clooney said. “We were not all that familiar with the actual story (of ‘The Monuments Men'), which is rare for a World War II film. ... We thought it was sort of a mix between ‘Kelly's Heroes' and ‘The Train.' And we wanted to talk about a very serious subject which is ongoing still, and we wanted to make it entertaining. That was the goal. We'll find out.”
The screenplay is based on a painstakingly researched 2009 book by Robert M. Edsel about how Hitler's forces stole and hoarded the finest art treasures of the Western world as they goose-stepped their way across Europe — and how a group of American and British museum directors, curators, art historians and experts, all well past draft age and with no combat training, was sanctioned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and supported by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to don fatigues, take up weapons and advance to the front lines to save these endangered works of art, massive amounts of which were hidden by the Nazis in deserted mines and other secret locations.
In the latter days of the war, as Hitler began to realize Germany would not triumph, he ordered that all these captured paintings, sculptures and great works of architecture be destroyed in the event of defeat or his death, so that the victors would lose pieces of their culture that were priceless and irreplaceable. So the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) unit — the so-called Monuments Men — were faced with an unpredictable and fast-approaching deadline.
“It's based on a true story, and, obviously, we made some things up along the way,” said Clooney, looking sharp in a black T-shirt and leather jacket at the center of the panel that included Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban and Blanchett. The actors that flanked him played characters based on real people — or composites of people — which artistic license allows, he said.
“We had to change the names of the characters because we wanted to give some of them some flaws, for entertainment purposes, quite honestly, for storytelling purposes,” Clooney said. “You don't want to take somebody who's real and heroic and give them a drinking problem. It's not really fair to do. So we changed the names because we wanted to be able to play with the story some. But these are based on real men ... and of course, our lovely Rose Valland.”
He was referring to Blanchett's character — named Claire Simone in the movie — a member of the French Resistance who worked in the Jeu de Paume museum during the Nazi occupation of Paris, spying on the Germans, and was instrumental in the recovery of looted works of art from France.
“I think what I found really inspiring about her, and I think all the characters, is they were such unlikely heroes,” Blanchett said. “And Rose Valland was utterly alone, and would write all this down on cigarette papers and put them into this book, which could, any day, have had her killed.”
Clooney's Stokes character is based on George Stout, a leading figure in art conservation at Harvard's Fogg Museum who was one of the first to push the museum community and the army toward forming an art conservation corps.
“We made some things up along the way, but most of it's true, and in fact, they were a part of a group that went into that mine,” Clooney said, referring to the salt mine in the Merkers area of Germany where stolen works of art and a fortune in Nazi gold were discovered by the U.S. Army in the spring of 1945.
“They found all of the German gold, basically all of it, effectively ending (Germany's) ability to purchase oil and prosecute the war,” Clooney said.
Hunt goes on
In short, the Monuments Men, in their search for stolen art, helped uncover Nazi Germany's version of Fort Knox, but it was the discovery of the gold — not the warehoused stolen art — that received most of the publicity at the time.
Clooney noted that the hunt goes on today for lost masterpieces, and that the U.S. State Department is involved in negotiations with private individuals, governments and museums in other countries who are still in wrongful possession of invaluable artistic gems.
“And if enough people see the movie, we might still (recover these lost masterpieces),” he said. “Please, tell everybody you know. There's a lot to that, a lot of questions. First and foremost there are so many elements of it that are tricky. There is a lot of this art that has been found and is in other people's — or museums, quite honestly. And some of it is repatriated and it's a long process, and it's not particularly easy.”