Robert Edsel and Brett Witter have crafted an excellent narrative for the events of the Monuments Men, a corps of men from the art world who rescued and protected the cultural treasures of Europe during the last year of WWII. I could hardly put it down. Seriously. I was totally fascinated and have since checked out every book I can find about looting during the war. Additionally, as I knew the book was to be a movie and knew a bit about the process (see this post) I couldn’t stop imagining how the story would be translated to film.
Edsel had already applied story telling techniques to the “event” of Nazi looting during World War II. He focuses on the creation of the Monuments Men, their actions in the field, the search for the Ghent Altar Piece and the Bruges Madonna, and finally, the rush to reach the art repository in mines of Altaussee before they were blown up. Enough background is provided to give the reader insight to the scope and extent of the Nazi looting campaign and the efforts of US Armed forces to preserve cultural resources after the Normandy Invasion.
In Monuments Men, Edsel highlights 10 individuals acting in Northern Europe in addition to dozens of other individuals mentioned. Clearly, several of the characters will have to be combined or left out. A movie audience would totally lose track of seven or eight different men traipsing across worn-torn Europe searching for different repositories and pieces of art. The three most indispensable characters to the story, in my opinion, are George Stout (the role, I think, most suited to Mr. Clooney), James Rorimer, and Rose Valland (the only major female character). I would imagine Eisenhower and Patton will make an appearance, as they do in the book, but what happens with all the other historical characters is anyone’s guess.
Most of the set-up for the activity of the Monuments Men could be handled in an opening montage – the Nazi’s stealing art in Germany, Poland and Austria; museum officials in the US discussing plans to protect their collections; European museums protecting their works of art in rural houses and mines. On the other hand, the real work of the Monuments Men began in June 1944 and opening a film with the D-Day Invasion would be impressive.
Like the book, the film will probably highlight the hunt for the Bruges Madonna and the Ghent Altarpiece. The two most important repositories found by the Monuments Men were in Neuschwanstein Castle and the salt mines at Altaussee. They might even limit their story to just one of these locations. As the salt mines were the repository of these two prominent works of art and were almost blown up, I would image that will be their choice. One event in the book, while not integral to the hunt for the two aforementioned repositories, but would be absolutely fabulous on the big screen, is the discovery of the Merkers mine which, in addition to many priceless works of art, housed the bulk of the Third Reich’s gold reserves. Near this mine, the US forces discovered Ohrdruf, a Nazi work camp.
The time period of the book is already, in the main, the last 10 months of the war, a relatively short time period. The genre for the film will likely be a buddy/war movie. I’m not certain how romance will be worked in. Edsel includes letters the men wrote home to their wives, so perhaps they can work that it as off-screen romance.
I can already see the movie in my head. If you have read or do read the book, you will probably see an entirely different movie. I wonder what kind of movie Mr. Clooney and his production team will see? I hope it's as good as mine.