It is, so goes the old saying, impossible to be all things to all men.
It is a well regarded truism that the producers of The Monuments Men, including one George Clooney, failed to heed when putting together this two headed hydra of a film which, all things considered, still manages to be a reasonably enjoyable movie despite its tonal inconsistencies.
But only just, with its dual aim of being of being both a tribute to the brave men and women, some 350 in all from 13 nations, who risked their lives in the dying months of World War Two to rescue as much of Europe’s artistic heritage as possible, and a rollicking good sock-it-the-Nazis buddy film, threatening at every turn to cannibalise each other.
The frustration is that both these elements, the comedic and the dramatic, work quite well in their own way; alas just not in the same movie with The Monuments Men unable to decide if it is Kelly Heroes or Saving Private Ryan, and suffering, though not fatally, as a result.
It begins with a commentary of civilisation in peril, the Nazis’ relentless hunger for territory and vengeance against those who did not fit the supposed Aryan ideal also including a prodigious lust for art, both painted and carved, a craving only satisfied by stealing the cultural heritage of entire nations such as France, Italy and Belgium, along with the private possessions of, in many cases, the Jewish families they had consigned to the gas chambers.
But you are no sooner grappling with the brazen theft of art on a grand scale, much of it designed to fill the vastly grand and ambitious Fuhrer’s Museum, when The Monuments Men shifts gears.
This time to introduce the eight men commissioned by United States General Dwight D Eisenhower to undertake the preservation and repatriation of this art, a feat it undertakes in a montage soundtracked by the sort of jaunty music that would not be out of place in Hogan’s Heroes.
It is meant to establish, of course, that these brave men, led by Lt Frank Stokes (George Clooney) and including Matt Damon as Lt. James Granger, Bill Murray as Sgt. Richard Campbell, John Goodman as Sgt. Walter Garfield, Jean Dujardin as Lt. Jean Claude Clermont, Bob Balaban as Pvt. Preston Savitz and Hugh Bonneville as Lt. Donald Jeffries, are all close friends, colleagues of long standing in the art and design world, who don’t hesitate to answer the call of duty.
It is a skilfully executed montage, cleverly leaping from person to interconnected person, most of whom are loosely based on the real Monuments Men, and drawing them together for the inevitably humourous basic training where the reality of the physical demands that will be asked of them comes crashing headlong into the unstinting idealism of their calling.
There is nothing wrong with any of it, though we have seen much of it play out in countless mismatched buddy movies before it, an entertaining entree to the grim realities of life on the front that await.
But then it changes tonal tack again as the men come ashore on the beaches of Normandy, well after the initial arrival of Allied trips, to find themselves largely on their own, the vast military machine brought together to defeat Hitler more concerned with blowing things up as needed than saving anything of cultural importance in their path.
And on it goes, moving back and forth between the jocular and the serious, the comradely goofy and the death’s door intense, as the men, alternately split into smaller teams, and towards the end back together as one unit. race into Germany to save as much precious art as possible.
Somewhere in these uncomfortable tonal shifts sits Cate Blanchett as Claire Simone, modelled on much-decorated French art historian and resistance fighter Rose Valland, who after some initial scepticism that the Americans are simply out to steal the art back so they can have it for themselves, uses her considerable resources and skills to assist the somewhat Quixotic efforts of The Monuments Men.
While she never quite develops fully as a character, and her rather one sided romance with a married Lt. Gallagher feeling tacked on as an afterthought, Blanchett beautifully portrays her as a woman conflicted and exhausted by war, no longer sure who to trust but well aware she must make a choice and make it soon.
She, along with the rest of the cast, acquit themselves reasonably well in a story that looms large as an epic re-telling of an amazing quest to safeguard as much of Europe’s cultural heritage as they possibly can.
The problem is that they, along with the narrative, sit rather awkwardly bestride the two competing sensibilities of the film, never quite sure which side to embrace, and running the very real risk of never really inhabiting either.
That The Monuments Men is still a movie worth seeing owes much to the fact that the two discordant halves are so well realised in and of themselves, with the seriousness and enormity of the task at hand thankfully and largely taking precedence in the film’s somewhat tense final act.
That it could have been a much stronger, more compelling movie is certain, if only Clooney and his fellow producers had decided early on what kind of movie they really wanted it to be, and had grimly stuck to it much like the epic and inspiring Monuments Men themselves.
* If you’re interested in finding out more about the real brave and passionate men and women of The Monuments Men, check out MonumentsMen.com.