The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

March 7, 2014

‘Monuments Men’ good, not monumental

By Roger Thomas

Thursday, March 6, 2014 — When I was growing up, my first taste of war films, and specifically films that were set during World War II, came from the “Late Show” on CBS. Some will remember a time before David Letterman was on CBS, and the network actually showed movies from 11:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m. It was during some late Friday nights and summer nights in the 1970s that I discovered “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Great Escape” and others. My personal favorite World War II film back in those days was actually one I had seen at the theater first, but watched it again every time it aired; that film was “Kelly’s Heroes” (starring a much younger Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles and Donald Sutherland). I still smile when I think of that film, because in spite of telling a story of war, it offered a great deal of humor.

Watching “The Monuments Men” recently brought back memories of those films seen as late night viewings because this new film seems to have captured the same spirit. Films such as “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Thin Red Line” and “Enemy at the Gates” have offered more mature perspectives on the Great War; more carnage, less humor. In a way, the cinema’s depiction of the second World War grew up parallel to my own maturing. I do not regret growing up with Lee Marvin’s “Dirty Dozen” and Eastwood’s “Heroes.” However, a part of me now expects depictions of war to be serious, more intense, less jokes.

Those responsible for the creation of “The Monuments Men” intentionally chose a more light-hearted spirit for this film. There are many laughs, a few poignant moments as well, but more humor than sadness and very little on screen violence. At first, I guess, having been inoculated with violence and serious tones of most war films of late, I found the attitude of “Monuments Men” to be slightly disconcerting.  

With that said, there is much to like about “Monuments Men.” It is a based on a fascinating true story about eight men charged with rescuing great works of art from Hitler’s soldiers who are bent on owning or destroying all they can. The whole theme of the value of art versus human life reminded me of that great debate scene in Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway,” but that is a column for another day.  

I liked the eight leads; their characters were strong and well-developed. Cate Blanchett also delivered another extraordinary performance. The cinematography, art direction and other technical aspects of the film were all outstanding. I also found the music score to be perfect for the film. Too often of late it seems that fewer films are succeeding when it comes to appropriate scores, but “Monuments Men” is not one of those. And the story itself needed to be told. It is an important part of the history of World War II.

As I stated above, there are some truly powerful moments. There are sacrifices in this story that are inspiring and scenes that are as moving as the relationships of the characters develop. However, in the end for me, I still find myself thinking of those films from my childhood and teenage days when war movies, at least the ones I was watching, were light and often very humorous. I still remember the outhouse blowing up on Don Rickles in “Kelly’s Heroes.” The creators of “Monuments Men” have every right to make a film with a similar attitude. It is a film I recommend, but I keep wondering if I would have endorsed it more enthusiastically if it had been serious like the war movies I have grown to love as an adult. I wonder.

Roger W. Thomas of Albemarle reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.