The story of the Monuments Men is one that really very few people know,” says George Clooney, who returns to the director’s chair for the story of a small group of artists, art historians, architects, and museum curators who would lead the rescue of 1000 years of civilization during World War II in his new film, The Monuments Men. “Artists, art dealers, architects – these were men that were far beyond the age that they were going to be drafted into a war or volunteer. But they took on this adventure, because they had this belief that culture can be destroyed. If they’d failed, it could have meant the loss of six million pieces of art. They weren’t going to let that happen – and the truth of the matter is, they pulled it off.”
Part of the drama of the film is that all of the Monuments Men are so unsuited to serving as soldiers in wartime. “Wars are fought by 18-year-olds,” says Clooney. “Once you get to the John Goodmans and the Bob Balabans and the George Clooneys, you know – these guys are not getting drafted.” Producing and writing partner Grant Heslov adds: “They did it because it was clear that they were the only people who could do it.”
The answer was the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives group, which would go to the front lines and, for the first time, try to save the treasures that could be saved. “Culture was at risk,” says Clooney. “You see it time and time again. You saw it in Iraq – the museums weren’t protected, and you saw how much of their culture was lost because of that.”
“Even today, people are still trying to get back the art that was looted from their families by the Nazis,”Heslov says, noting that just recently, a treasure trove of looted art was discovered in a Munich apartment – 1,500 works worth $1.5 billion, paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Dix, and other artists that had been thought to be lost.
Clooney and Heslov note that while the film is based on the true story of the Monuments Men, they did take some liberties with the characters for dramatic purposes. Though many of the characters are inspired by real Monuments Men, Clooney and Heslov have invented characters for the film. More importantly, even if the characters are invented, their story is real. “We invented a few mundane scenes, just to help the story along, but the things in the movie that you’d think are so ridiculous and strange, ‘well, there’s no way that those actually happened’ – those are the things that actually happened,” says Clooney.
Meet “The Monuments Men,” for the film, Clooney and Heslov were able to attract a top tier of actors, including Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett.
George Clooney heads the cast in the role of Frank Stokes, a leading art historian. The inspiration for Clooney’s character was art historian George Stout.“In real life, he was a very scrappy guy. He could do anything – like fix cars and radios.” The head of the conservation department at the Fogg, and later the director of the Worcester Art Museum and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Stout was on the front lines during the war, helping to rescue cultural treasures in Caen, Maastricht, and Aachen, as well as Nazi art repositories in Siegen, Heilbronn, Cologne, Merkers, and Altaussee.
Matt Damon takes on the role of James Granger and marks his sixth collaboration with George Clooney. The James Granger character is inspired by James Rorimer, who later became director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Granger’s relationship with Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) was inspired by Rorimer’s interaction with Rose Valland, an employee of the Jeu de Paume gallery in Paris.
Bill Murray was excited to join The Monuments Men from the minute George Clooney first told him about the project. Murray’s role, Richard Campbell, is an architect. Murray’s character is inspired by several real Monuments Men, including architect Robert Posey. While embedded with Patton’s Third Army during the war, Posey discovered the salt mine at Altaussee, where the Nazis had stashed the Ghent Altarpiece, the Bruges Madonna, Vermeer’s The Astronomer, and thousands of other works of art. For his contributions, Posey was awarded the Legion of Honor from France and the Order of Leopold from Belgium.
John Goodman says that his character, Walter Garfield, represents the people, men and women, who were stuck on the home front but eager to help the war effort in any way they could. Goodman’s character is inspired by the real-life Monuments Man Walker Hancock, a renowned sculptor. Hancock was a native of St. Louis, as is Goodman. “Oddly enough, when my mother and I would take the bus to downtown St. Louis to go shopping, we’d pass one of his sculptures, the Soldiers’ Memorial,” Goodman says. “It just put me in touch with the character. It’s a small connection, but a happy coincidence.”
Goodman’s character, Walter Garfield, is paired with Jean Claude Clermont, portrayed by Oscar®-winning actor Jean Dujardin, a re-teaming of Goodman and Dujardin from “The Artist.” “Jean’s role as Claude Clermont is a French Jew who is an art dealer in Marseilles,” Dujardin explains. “He escapes and takes refuge in London with his family. He is recruited by the American army for his artistic knowledge. He’s not a soldier, but it’s really important for him to take part in the war. He’s really proud to be a member of the Monuments Men.”
“Downton Abbey’s”Hugh Bonneville plays Donald Jeffries, a flawed man seeking a second chance. “When the characters are introduced, you see them in their natural habitats, so to speak,” Bonneville explains. “Donald’s happens to be a pub. We come to learn that he has made mistakes in life, has been unreliable and George’s character gives him a second chance to re-embrace his first love, which is art.”
Bob Balaban takes on the role of Preston Savitz. “Savitz is an intellectual, an art historian and a theatrical impresario,” Balaban says. Preston Savitz is inspired by Monuments Man Lincoln Kirstein, an American impresario, art connoisseur, author, and a major cultural figure in New York who co-founded the New York City Ballet.
The final Monuments Man in the film is Sam Epstein, played by Dimitri Leonidas. Not yet 19, Epstein is the only real soldier in the group, recruited for his ability to drive and to speak German. “My character grew up in Germany – but Germany rejected him, because he’s Jewish,” Leonidas says. The inspiration for Leonidas’s character is Harry Ettlinger. “I was born in Germany under the Jewish faith,” says Ettlinger. “Hitler was on his way to get rid of all Jews in all the world. My father lost his business, and my parents realized that economic life for a Jew was no longer possible in Germany.”
Cate Blanchett rounds out the cast as Claire Simone, a Frenchwoman in a unique position in Occupied France. “Claire Simone is a curator at the Jeu de Paume – once an art museum but became a kind of depot for art looted by the Nazis,” Blanchett explains. “But her real work goes on at night, when she records the provenance of the works and where they were being taken in an obsessively detailed way. She’s the catalyst for the third act of the movie – the Monuments Men know the works are disappearing but they don’t know where they are going, and they need her information.” Blanchett’s character is inspired by Rose Valland, a French woman who bravely and secretly kept track of the Nazis’ systematic tracking, risking her life in the process.
“The Monuments Men” opens February 12 in cinemas from 20th Century Fox to be distributed by Warner Bros.