George Clooney has announced that he will co-write, direct, and star in a big-budget film about a group of museum curators and art scholars who put on uniforms to rescue thousands of art treasures as the Allies liberated Europe during World War II. Clooney and his business partner Grant Heslov are adapting the script from Robert M. Edsel’s 2009 “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” (co-written by Bret Witter). The book’s main events take place between D-Day (June 6, 1944) and Victory in Europe Day (May 7, 1945).
"We're working on the screenplay right now,” Clooney told The Wrap at the Palm Springs Film Festival on Saturday. “I'm really interested in telling the story of how these very unlikely heroes went miles deep into a mine and found all the art and returned it.
"It's a fun movie because it could be big entertainment. It's a big budget, you can't do it small—it's landing in Normandy," Clooney said. “I’m not opposed to doing a commercial film. I’m just opposed to doing a commercial film that doesn’t feel organic to me. So if we’re going to do a commercial film we thought, 'Let’s do something that seems fun and actually have something to say.'”
The most outrageous of the Nazi art thieves was Reichsmarschall Göring, whose 1,800 paintings and sculptures — including fifty works by Lucas Granach the Elder, thirty by Peter Paul Rubens, and many of nude women — amounted to the largest private collection on the continent and is the subject of Nancy Yeide’s book “Beyond the Dreams of Avarice.” Clooney said that Hitler won’t be appearing in the film. “Who wants to see Hitler? And who really wants to play Hitler?” he said. Maybe, though, a symbolic part can be found for Göring, who, as quoted at the beginning of Edsel’s book, said in 1942: “It used to be called plunder. But today things have become more humane. In spite of that, I intend to plunder, and to do it thoroughly.”
In 1943, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program was established under the auspices of the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied Armies. The Monuments Men and women, average age 40, numbered about 345 and came from 13 nations. Edsel’s book focuses on just a handful of them. They include James J. Rorimer, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Curator of Medieval Art and Curator of the Cloisters, who was responsible for retrieving Göring’s art loot (much of it stashed at Berchtesgaden) and that of Josef Goebbels. Another key Monument Man was the British art and ecclesiastics historian Major Ronald Balfour, who reported on the theft of Michelangelo’s Bruges "Madonna," stolen by the Nazis from the city's Church of Our Lady a week before his arrival. Balfour was killed by a shell while removing a sculpture from the damaged church in Clèves in March 1945—he was one of two Monument Men killed in action.
Clooney will surely find a role for the remarkable Rose Valland, one of the most decorated women in French history. An art historian and member of the French Resistance, she operated as a German-speaking spy and secretly recorded the stealing of 20,000 pieces of art. Her memoir was loosely adapted into John Frankenheimer’s 1964 film "The Train," in which a character based on her was played by Suzanne Flon.
Perhaps the most flamboyant of the Monument Men was Lincoln Kirstein, who invited George Balanchine to America and founded with him the School of American Ballet in 1934 and the Ballet Society (later the New York City Ballet) in 1946. A private in Patton’s Third Army, Kirstein and the architect Captain Robert K. Posey discovered the 15th-century Ghent Altarpiece by the van Eyck brothers, stolen from Sainto Bavo Cathedral in Ghent. They found it in the complex of salt mines at Althausee, Austria -- the biggest of the hundreds of Nazi art storage facilities scattered across Europe in castles, monasteries, and mines.
More than 6,500 paintings were discovered at Altaussee. As well as the Ghent Altarpiece, they included the Michelangelo, Vermeer's "The Astronomer" and "The Art of Painting," which were intended to be star attractions in Hitler’s projected Führermuseum in Linz, Austria, and paintings from the Capodimonte Museum, in Naples, stolen by the Hermann Göring Tank Division at Monte Cassino.
Disparagingly known as “Venus fixers” by officers more interested in winning battles than finding Old Masters, the Monuments Men frequently risked life and limb by going ahead of ground troops into potential combat situations. Some reviewers of Edsel’s book commented on its action-movie aura. "In ‘The Monuments Men,’ Edsel strives to give his heroes the two-fisted, John Wayne treatment he feels they deserve,” wrote Jonathan Lopez in the Boston Globe. “Structured as a series of swift cinematic scenes, the book is at times overly theatrical...but it is nonetheless a difficult work to put down."
Curiously, one of the Monuments Men, the leading art conversationist Lieutenant George Stout, came, like from Wayne's hometown of Winterset, Iowa. Stout supervised the rescue of 40 tons of art from the Merkers salt mine in central Germany in April 1945. The haul included Édouard Manet’s "In the Conservatory," a Rubens, a Goya, and the original woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer’s “Apocalypse” series of 1498.
“When George Stout left Europe in August 1945 after little more than 13 months, he had discovered, analyzed, and packed tens of thousands of pieces of artwork, including 80 truckloads from Altaussee alone,” Edson writes. “He had organized the MFAA field officers at Normandy, pushed command headquarters to expand and support the monuments effort, mentored the other Monuments Men across France and Germany, interrogated many of the important Nazi art officials, and inspected most of the Nazi repositories south of Berlin and east of the Rhine.”
“As a field officer, he was the go-to expert for all the other Monuments Men in northern Europe and their indispensable role model and friend,” monumentsmen.com reports. “Stout was dapper, debonair, and resolutely unflappable,” we learn from Edson. The photo of Stout grinning under his moustache on the website strongly suggests Clark Gable, and Clooney “did” Gable in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Stout was 47 in 1945, Clooney will be 51 this May. Come on, George, you know you can do it.