One of the big movies leading the charge for the film industry in February 2014 is The Monuments Men, a feature directed by George Clooney based on the real-life treasure hunt where a unique platoon is formed during WWII at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to rescue culturally important artwork from the Nazis. The squad sent to Germany consists of museum directors, curators, and art historians – all played by veteran Hollywood talent.
The story of The Monuments Men is based on the novel of the same name by Robert Edsel and Don Kaye had the opportunity to interview Edsel on behalf of Screen Rant where they discussed the real-life story and people the movie is based on, and how he formed a worthy story based on his research.
Can you talk a little about what inspired this book for you? It started for you in Florence, didn’t it?
Robert Edsel: It did, yeah. I was living in Florence and I walked across the Ponte Vecchio bridge one day – the only bridge not destroyed by the Nazis in 1944 in August, when they fled – and it occurred to me, you know, here’s a war that claimed 65 million lives, it devastated so much of Western Europe, and yet we have all these works in the museums, so many churches that survived – how did that happen and who were the people that saved it? And I didn’t know the answer, and I wasn’t embarrassed I didn’t know the answer, but I was hugely embarrassed that it never occurred to me to ask the question.
And it was hard to find, and it’s really remarkable to me – it was remarkable then – that in a war that was the most documented, photographed event in history, some 65 years later, a story that’s an epic story – this is not an individual tale of heroism, but an epic portion of what took place during the war, involving so many things whether people like art or not that they know about, that that’s not commonplace knowledge among people. And at the heart of the story are these men and women, the Monuments Men, and I wanted to tell that story.
So when you did start researching it, was it difficult to find the information and find the records and find out who these guys were?
There were some books written that were out of print. Some that the monuments officers wrote. There were some that were written more in the ’90s that got into this material. But the thing that I felt was missing was a very commonplace telling of it – the way I started learning the story, learning about art, but not from an academic standpoint, but why these things are important, why they’re beautiful, why would someone risk their life to go save these things. And the key were these letters home during the war, the chance to talk to the monuments officers and get – how did they feel? Were they homesick? Were they lonely? Were they scared? What was it like to walk in a salt mine or a cave and not know whether it was booby-trapped or if there was a German soldier in there? And that could only be found through trying to find the monuments officers and speaking to them, and then also finding their documents and records, which has been really detective work that’s gone on now for about 12 years.
How many of them did you get a chance to talk to, and how many of them are still around now?
I met and interviewed 17 monuments officers — two women, 15 guys. There’s still five that are living, one woman who’s British, four American men. The youngest is 89, the oldest is 96, so we’re living on borrowed time, but they’ve been great resources of information. There were many other monuments officers who unfortunately passed before I got involved, but we’re able to track down a lot of their records and, most importantly, find their family members and then find their letters that were written home during the war. In some cases, family members didn’t even know that they had ‘em.
When you’re writing the book, you’re not saying in the back of your head, “One day this is going to be a movie directed by George Clooney, starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett…” So what goes through your mind seeing it come to the screen like this?
Well, it’s a hugely exciting moment. I mean, I had – I always believed this should be a great feature film, the story of it, because again, there’s so many films about D-Day, the conquering of Berlin, World War II stories, that here we have one that’s not been told as a feature film about the monuments men and women per se, and I think that’s one of the attractions to George and Grant (Heslov, co-writer/producer), was to be the ones to tell that story.
But it was a great, exciting development, because I knew then that the monuments men and women’s legacy was going to be preserved, it was going to be intact, it was going to be introduced to a worldwide audience in a way that only feature film can do. I mean, no matter how successful your book is, you can’t reach that global audience that a film can do, and whet their appetite and maybe they read the book, maybe not, but they at least know who these men and women were and what a debt of gratitude we have to all of them for the fact that so many of these things survived.
George Clooney directs The Monuments Men and stars in it alongside Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville.
The Monuments Men opens in theaters on February 7, 2014.
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