I’m really glad I haven’t watched the film yet. As a rule I avoid seeing films before I’ve read the book, so when The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel (with Bret Witter) popped through my letter box, I openly giggled. And not just because I had an unread copy sat on my bookshelf either! Obviously, the hipster in me wishes I’d read it long before the film came out, but sadly that was not meant to be.
The book, now a “Major Motion Picture” as the legend splashed across the cover screams, is the lesser known World War 2 story of a unit of Allied forces known as the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Devision. Their role was to protect all manner of cultural paraphernalia from the Nazis, and to be honest, quite a lot from the Allies as well. What makes the Monuments Men, as they were known, different from the average underage soldier being shipped off was that every single one of them was, well, lets just say they were all well known figures in the art world long before the Nazis came in to power. That’s a nicer way of putting it.
Their remit was to travel across war torn Europe, recording the sometimes deliberate blanket destruction of some of the worlds most fantastic buildings and monuments and tracking down vast hoards of stolen artworks before they could be destroyed. The Monuments Men consisted of an international (read: mostly American and British) team of museums professionals, artists, architects, scholars and Rose Valland, a volunteer at the Louvre, and the only female (unofficial) member of the monuments men. She was convinced by Jacques Jaujard, himself a member of the Monuments Men, to spy on Nazi activity, saving thousands of priceless art pieces and going pretty much entirely unrecognised until the book came out.
In terms of actual writing, I did tend to feel a little queasy reading this thing at speed. At first it jumps around quite a bit. But once you settle in to the style it becomes all about the characters, and their genuine love for the artwork they’re trying to protect. Luckily for the authors, the plot isn’t something they really had to worry about, seeing as it pretty much is the story of the Second World War. That being said, they did face the issue of repeating a tired old story that anyone over the age of a foetus knows by heart. I suppose it’s a tough sell. The Second World War already has so many horror stories, how do you get people to care about the one involving art and not people?
I have to say the book is written brilliantly. It never feels like a tired textbook. It really does just focus on the characters. It’s through understanding them that the reader can understand why they should care about the great arts and monuments of Europe and the very real danger they were in. Right, I’m off to see the film!