In 1943, the Allies are making good progress driving back the Axis powers in Italy. Frank Stokes persuades President Roosevelt that victory will have little meaning if the artistic treasures of Western civilization are lost. Stokes is directed to assemble an Army unit nicknamed the "Monuments Men," comprising museum directors, curators, art historians, and an architect, to both guide Allied units and search for stolen art to return it to its rightful owners.
Claire Simone, a curator in occupied France, is forced to assist Nazi officer Viktor Stahl in overseeing the theft of art for either Adolf Hitler's Führermuseum or as personal property of senior commanders such as Hermann Göring. All seems lost when she discovers that Stahl is taking all of her gallery's contents to Germany as the Allies approach Paris. Simone runs to the railyard to confront him, but can only watch as he departs aboard the train carrying the cargo.
Stokes' unit finds its work frustrated by Allied officers in the field, who refuse to endanger their own troops for the sake of his mission. James Granger finds that Simone will not cooperate with those whom she suspects want to confiscate the stolen art for their own country. The unit splits up to cover more ground, with varying degrees of success. British officer Donald Jeffries sneaks into occupied Bruges at night to save Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges, but is killed in the attempt.
Richard Campbell and Preston Savitz learn that Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece was removed by the priests of Ghent Cathedral for safekeeping, but their truck was stopped and the panels taken. Eventually, they find and arrest Viktor Stahl, who is hiding as a farmer, when they identify the paintings in his house as masterpieces, at least one stolen from the Rothschild Collection. Walter Garfield and Jean Claude Clermont get lost in the countryside and blunder into a firefight. Clermont is mortally wounded and dies when Garfield is unable to find medical help. Meanwhile, Simone reconsiders when Granger shows her the Nero Decree, which orders the destruction of all German possessions if Hitler dies or Germany falls, and sees him return a painting looted from a Jewish family to its rightful place in their empty home. She provides a comprehensive ledger she has compiled that provides valuable information on the stolen art and the rightful owners.
Even as the team learns that the artwork is being stored in various mines and castles, it also learns that it must now compete against the Soviet Union, which is seizing artwork as war reparations. Meanwhile, Colonel Wegner is systematically destroying whole art caches. Eventually, the team has some success, as it discovers at least one mine hiding over 16,000 art pieces. In addition, the team captures the entire gold reserves of the Nazi German national treasury.
Finally, the team finds a mine in Austria that appears to have been demolished. However, they discover that the entrances were blocked by the locals in order to prevent the Nazis from destroying the contents. The team evacuates as much artwork as possible, including the sculpture Jeffries died trying to defend, before the Soviets arrive.
Stokes reports back to President Truman that the team has recovered vast quantities of artwork and various other culturally significant items. As he requests to stay in Europe to oversee further searching and restoration, Truman asks Stokes if his efforts were worth the lives of the men he lost. Stokes says they were. Truman then asks if, thirty years from then, anyone will remember that these men died for a piece of art. In 1977, the elderly Stokes, replies "Yeah," while he takes his grandson to see Michelangelo's Madonna.
The Monuments Men is an American-German co-production of Columbia Pictures (in association with 20th Century Fox) and Studio Babelsberg. The film was funded by the German Federal Film Fund (DFFF) with €8.5 million, Mitteldeutsche Medienförderung, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg as well as Medien- und Filmgesellschaft Baden-Württemberg. Casting was held in February 2013 for thousands of extras for the military scenes.
Principal photography began in early March 2013, at the Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam, Germany, in the Berlin-Brandenburg region, and the Harz. The mines around Bad Grund, particularly the Wiemannsbucht and the Grube Hilfe Gottes, were used in the filming of outdoor scenes. Other outdoor locations were the towns of Lautenthal, Clausthal-Zellerfeld, Goslar, Halberstadt, Merseburg, and Osterwieck.
Some of the scenes, including flights and American war base footage, were filmed at Imperial War Museum Duxford, Cambridgeshire, UK. A farm in Ashford in Kent was also used.
Filming was scheduled to last until the end of June 2013, wrapping up in Rye, East Sussex.
The film was originally set to be released on December 18, 2013, and a trailer was released on August 8, 2013. However, on October 22, 2013, the film was pushed back to an unspecified date in February 2014, because issues balancing humor with the serious nature of the subject matter caused post-production to take longer than expected. On October 24, 2013, it was announced that the film would screen on February 7, 2014 at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival.
The film was also screened at UNESCO, on 27 March 2014, on the occasion of the panel discussion "Modern Day Monuments Men and Women" on the preservation of heritage in times of conflict and the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property.
Monuments Men received mixed reviews from critics. On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 31% approval rating, based on 221 reviews, with an average score of 5.2/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Its intentions are noble and its cast is impressive, but neither can compensate for The Monuments Men's stiffly nostalgic tone and curiously slack narrative." At Metacritic, another review aggregator, the film has a weighted average score of 52 out of 100, based on 43 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
Film critic Peter Travers in Rolling Stone Magazine gave it 3 out of 4 stars, noting that while some of the dialogue and emotions seemed inauthentic, the physical production and cinematography were "exquisite," with shooting done on locations in Germany and England. In comparing the film with contemporary ones, he considered it a "proudly untrendy, uncynical movie," where the story involved people seeking something more valuable than money. He added, "Clooney [as director] feels there's much to be learned from these unsung art warriors...The Monuments Men is a movie about aspiration, about culture at risk, about things worth fighting for. I'd call that timely and well worth a salute." He also wrote that "...[e]scapism junkies may feel betrayed", because "...Clooney has crafted a movie about aspiration, about culture at risk, about things worth fighting for"; overall, he gave it a 3/4.
Richard Roeper from the Chicago Sun-Times called the film an "...engaging, shamelessly corny and entertaining World War II adventure inspired by true events"; he gave it a 3/4. Film critic Richard Corliss from TIME Magazine stated that "...[r]ather than juicing each element to blockbuster volume, Clooney has delivered it in the tone of a memorial lecture, warm and ambling, given by one of the distinguished academics he put in his movie."
Historian Alex von Tunzelmann, writing for The Guardian, noted several historical faults and said of the plot, "If you're getting the sense that the film is episodic and poorly structured, unfortunately you'd be right", and "There are far too many characters, so the screenplay splits them up into little groups and sends them off on various errands. Some of these are more exciting than others – but they do not add up to a satisfying plot. A TV series might have been a better vehicle for the "monuments men" stories than a feature film... The story is fascinating, but this film's good intentions are hampered by its lack of pace, direction, tone and properly fleshed-out characters."
The film is based on real events, but the names of all characters were changed, and a number of further adjustments were made to the historical facts in the interests of drama. Clooney is quoted as saying, "80 percent of the story is still completely true and accurate, and almost all of the scenes happened".
The accounts of some events have, however, been altered to serve the film's dramatic portrayal of the retrieval of these treasures. The art at the Altaussee, Austria salt mine was saved due to the influence of Ernst Kaltenbrunner. Kaltenbrunner defied the Führer's orders to carry out the 'Nero Decree' and destroy the pieces in order to avoid their falling into the hands of his enemies, according to numerous real-life accounts, including an interview with Ernst Kaltenbrunner's nephew Michl Kaltenbrunner.
A 1945 British Special Operations Executive misson, codenamed Bonzos and led by Albrecht Gaiswinkler, was responsible for saving the looted art stored in Austrian salt mines. Albrecht Gaiswinkler was parachuted back into the Aussee area with three colleagues: Valentin Tarra, Johann Moser, and Hans Renner. The Germans had pillaged a huge number of European art treasures during the Nazi period, and stored many of them in the Altaussee salt mine near Gaiswinkler's home town of Bad Aussee. After being dropped into the local area, Gaiswinkler raised a force of around 300 men, armed them with captured German weapons, and spent the last weeks and months of the war harassing local German forces. When the Americans arrived, his information helped them capture several eminent Nazis. He and his colleagues had captured the salt mine, prevented the destruction of the artworks held there, and were able to hand over "a number of Nazi treasure hoards, including the Mona Lisa and the Austrian Imperial Crown Jewels". Other artworks rescued included Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece.
Nigel Pollard of Swansea University awarded the film only two stars out of five for historical accuracy. Pollard wrote, "There’s a kernel of history there, but The Monuments Men plays fast and loose with it in ways that are probably necessary to make the story work as a film, but the viewer ends up with a fairly confused notion of what the organisation Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA) was, and what it achieved. The real organisation was never a big one (a few dozen officers at most), but the film reduces it to just seven men to personalise the hunt for the looted art: five Americans, one British officer, the first to be killed off (Hugh Bonneville) and a Free French officer, marginalising the British role in the establishment of the organisation. This is presented as set up at Clooney's [Stokes'] initiative after the bombing of Monte Cassino (so, after February 1944). In fact, its origins actually went back to British efforts in Libya in 1942, and it already existed (albeit with teething troubles) when the Allies invaded Sicily in July 1943."