...shining light on the media, one review at a time
I love art. I fancy myself an artist and count artists of all sorts among my friends. But would I die for art? The Monuments Men is based on a true story of men who were, at least according to this fictional telling, willing to do just that.
With a great passion for art, a group of art experts strives to rescue the pieces they believe to be the history and culture of the civilizations that Nazi Germany sought to destroy during World War II. Yet what nobility there might be in such an effort and accompanying sacrifices is ultimately disrespected in this film that slanders the God many of these works of art were created to honor.
Professor Frank Stokes is horrified by what is happening during World War II. Like most Americans, he is disturbed by the loss of thousands of lives, but he sees further losses that many have overlooked. He sees the tragedy of the art that is being destroyed in the bombing of European countries or confiscated by Hitler’s soldiers for his private collection.
Hitler wants to conquer more than people and their governments; he wants to take their art, as well. He wants to take for himself what these cultures hold dear and whatever they might see as part of their history and value. Stokes sees Hitler’s ravaging of art as an attempt to destroy the very “foundation of modern civilization.”
Stokes is not alone. Once he convinces the American government to send a special unit overseas to protect the art that they can, he has no trouble finding an assortment of art experts to go with him. This unit of men, rejected from previous military service because of advanced age or health concerns, is an amusing sight to some of the younger soldiers abroad, but they are all eager to serve the war effort. They are proud to be called “The Monuments Men.”
As they embark to save the world’s art and to return to the rightful owners any pieces they find, Stokes tells the Monuments Men that they must remember their lives are “more important than a piece of art.” After months spent in an often dangerous effort to save and return the art, Stokes and the men under his command have changed their minds. Art is worth dying for, they come to believe, for this art is their history. And like the art they recovered, their sacrifices to preserve that history will be remembered by the culture they risked everything to save.
The Monuments Men has a monumental task at hand. The film has to at once honor what its heroes did to preserve the art people enjoy today while avoiding the trap of dishonoring the efforts made by the rest of the soldiers to preserve human lives. This balancing act contributes to a few conflicting messages, but in the end the winner is art.
Though Stokes initially states that human lives are more important than art, he nearly simultaneously says that “you can kill a people,” even entire towns of people, and “they’ll always come back.” But, he says, “if you destroy their culture, their history, it’s as if they never existed.” With such a view, one shouldn’t be surprised that Stokes eventually concludes that he “was wrong” to believe that human lives are more important than pieces of art.
A debatable point, to be sure, but Stokes is not the only character in this film to share this view. All of the Monuments Men prove themselves willing to sacrifice their very lives if necessary to prevent art from falling into Nazi hands or being destroyed.
With high production values and a stellar cast of actors, the art-is-everything message of Monuments is almost convincing. When a French woman trying to protect French art shows a Monuments Men Lieutenant a collection of paintings and other collector’s items that were stolen from Jews, he asks her, “What is all this?” In a moment meant to send shivers down viewers’ spines, she says, “People’s lives.” Dramatic indeed, but woefully wrong. Even the Jews who lost those items would likely say that the lives lost during the Holocaust were of far greater import than their art collections.
The Jewish faith, like Christianity, recognizes that things, even great art, are just things—not the essence or purpose in life. Yet the constant striving of secular artists, in this case filmmakers, to find the purpose in life and death is more obvious in this picture than in some. Sadly, the words the characters speak throughout Monuments show that they are devaluing the real purpose and meaning they seek.
Those revealing words are the many misuses of the Lord’s name. Specifically, Jesus Christ’s name is profaned at least five times, while God’s name is abused even more frequently. Obscenities also flood the dialogue, including countless uses of “d--n,” “h--l,” and the s-word (in two languages, no less).
Though characters also throw out stock phrases like “God willing” and ironically idolize some works of Christian art, their rejection of Christ and the true purpose of life is obvious. Their adoration for art is indeed nothing short of idolatry, but when a comrade dies, they have to find something to give that death a positive meaning. Saying that art is “the story of our lives” accomplishes that end.
In addition to the language problem, some of the works of art in the film show nudity. Several characters smoke cigarettes, including an amusing number of people who say they “don’t smoke.” Still, there are some positive strokes in Monuments, as well. One married man resists the temptation to spend the night with a French woman, and the band of Monuments Men voluntarily risk their lives simply to be with one of their members when he might be about to die.
Despite being a war picture, the movie also manages to avoid excessive violence, showing only a few men who are bloodied and dying from bullet wounds. The Monuments Men themselves are extremely reluctant to kill anyone, even Germans, and compassionately avoid doing so on more than one occasion.
But while Monuments glorifies human dignity, human accomplishments, and human civilization, it disregards the Creator who started humanity in the first place. More than that, the language of this film actually profanes the Christ Who gives the only meaning to human life and any good that comes out of it.
Many a WWII veteran would likely dispute Stokes’ claim that art “is exactly what we’re fighting for.” Most soldiers likely thought they were fighting to prevent Hitler’s tyranny from taking over the world, or, put more frankly, to defeat evil and save human lives. The Monuments Men acknowledges this alternate reason to fight, as even Stokes criticizes the Germans by observing that they “took better care of paintings than people.” Too bad that Stokes ends up committing this same evil himself.
Thanks to Hollywood’s glitz and glamour, Monuments is entertaining, humorous, touching, and inspiring. But that’s the trouble with art. Its beauty can often be used to disguise and its power to mislead. Christian “soldiers” should keep that truth in mind if they choose to watch this battle for meaning in the transient beauty of this world.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Matthew 6:19-21
Check out these movies instead:
The Hiding Place (World Wide Pictures, 1975)
The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler (Hallmark Hall of Fame, 2009)
Sergeant York (Warner Bros., 1941)
The Scarlet and the Black (ITC, 1983)
For more ideas, visit our What to Watch page!