LOS ANGELES — The man who wrote the book on the daring rescue of Nazi-looted artworks put it simply: “We can’t tell the story of ‘The Monuments Men’ and not talk about Boston.”
Boston was “so absolutely important” to the success of that little-known but crucial World War II mission, said Robert Edsel. More attention is coming soon, in the form of a new movie out this week starring, co-written, and directed by George Clooney.
The roughly 350 men who risked, and sometimes gave, their lives — dubbed by fellow World War II soldiers “the Monuments Men” — saved everything from priceless Old Masters by Rembrandt and Vermeer to religious sculptures, antiquities, and gold hidden away in castles and buried in mines.
They were part of an Allied effort drawn from 13 countries. Museum directors, curators, conservationists, artists, architects, historians, and others — a number of them middle aged men from Boston, without military training — joined up and headed to the front lines in World War II to help preserve the cultural patrimony of Europe.
Landing in hot spots around the continent, the Monuments Men sometimes had to dodge bullets and shells as they scrambled to save cultural artifacts from being destroyed in Allied bombings, locate secret caches of Nazi-looted artworks and, if possible, recover these cultural treasures before the retreating Nazis could destroy them.
Ultimately, they returned more than 5 million cultural objects to the countries from which they had been stolen, including Michelangelo’s “Bruges Madonna” and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine.”
More than 20 of the officers in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, as it was officially known, had ties to Massachusetts, and many came out of Harvard University, including the central figure of George Stout, the man upon whom Clooney based his character, Frank Stokes.
“They were museum-study graduates of [MFAA recruiter] Paul Sachs at Harvard or worked at some of the other museums or schools around Boston, that really was a nexus,” said Edsel, author of “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.” Edsel’s book served as source material for the film, which opens Friday with a star-studded cast, including Matt Damon, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”), Bob Balaban, and Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”).
Sachs was a Harvard professor and associate director of Harvard’s Fogg Museum, and Edsel estimates that there were 22 “Sachs babies” among the MFAA ranks. “If there was a farm club of people to become Monuments officers, it’s coming out of Boston and the educational system there,” Edsel said.
Many of the Monuments officers either held or went on to hold prestigious positions at Boston-area colleges and museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts, the Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Fogg Museum. Stout, a pioneer in the field of art conservation, worked at the Fogg Museum before the war, and he went on to become director of the Worcester Art Museum from 1947 to 1954 and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum from 1955 to 1970.
As depicted in the film, Clooney’s character is a wise academic with a soft touch and a sense of humor, but also a driving passion for preserving the cultural legacy of the countries ravaged by the war. He resolutely handpicks a team to carry out this important but dangerous mission, which would claim the lives of two MFAA officers.
The real George Stout might be surprised to be at the center of a multimillion-dollar Hollywood epic, said his former colleague Joyce Hill Stoner, a professor and paintings conservator at the University of Delaware, Winterthur Museum. Stout was the “opposite of publicity-seeking,” said Stoner, who worked with Stout on a number of projects before his death in 1978, including an oral history project for the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation.
She remembers him as an extraordinary person who was very exact in his work, generous in spirit, and sent hand-lettered prose poems as Christmas cards.
“He spoke in a very soft tone and was always slightly bent over in a sort of apologetic stance, like, ‘I’m so sorry to bother you but . . .’ ” she recalled with a laugh. At the idea of Clooney playing him, Stoner said, “I think he would chuckle. They’ve given him the little brush mustache, and so forth, so they’ve done pretty well.”
While the filmmakers did engage in some embellishments, they strove for veracity, depicting the Monuments Men as what many of them were — art-loving academics and artists in their 40s and 50s as opposed to swashbuckling soldiers.
“We changed the names of some of the characters because we wanted to give them some flaws for storytelling purposes,” Clooney explained at a recent press conference for the film in Beverly Hills. “You don’t want to take somebody who’s real and heroic and give them a drinking problem, it’s not really fair. But these are based on real people.” And, he said, “Some of the wildest parts of the film are true,” including a scene in which the Monuments Men discover a priceless piece of artwork — a panel from the Ghent Altarpiece — when they flip over the wood slab they have been using as a table.
“They’ve done a great job of observing the historical record,” said Edsel. “They’ve taken literary license to things, but can I say that all the things that happened in the film did happen in some form or fashion? Yes.”
The art world has been buzzing about the upcoming film, according to Gianfranco Pocobene, chief conservator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, who, like Stout, also worked at the Fogg.
“I think we’re all excited because conservation is this operation that occurs in the back of museums, and the general public doesn’t typically get to see or understand either conservation or preservation,” Pocobene said.
The mission of the Monuments Men is well worth the kind of attention it is receiving, he added. “The fact that . . . they recognized that they needed to drop everything and go be of whatever assistance they could be is really extraordinary,” said Pocobene. “It’s fantastic because this stuff isn’t being made anymore, we have what we have, and every bit that disappears through war or whatever the case may be is a loss that can’t be replaced.”
Grant Heslov, Clooney’s producing partner and co-screenwriter, certainly found it to be an extraordinary tale. Heslov said he came across Edsel’s book at the airport, and his interest was sparked.
He recalls pitching Clooney: “ ‘It’s big. It’s a fantastic story. It’s World War II. It’s got something to say. It’s a story we haven’t heard before. Maybe you’ll like it.’ And he read it and was like, ‘This is great, let’s do it.’ ”
Clooney noted that “Monuments Men” is a tonal change of pace for the pair, who previously produced the Oscar-winning “Argo” and Oscar-nominated “Good Night, and Good Luck,” among other films.
“Grant and I tend to make films that are somewhat cynical at times,” said Clooney. “And we sat down specifically saying let’s not do that for once. Let’s do one that doesn’t have any of that, that has a real positive outlook on things.”
That positivity — and a chance to work together — helped attract the all-star ensemble.
“Projects like this don’t come along very often with an ensemble like this,” said Blanchett, an Oscar nominee for last year’s “Blue Jasmine.” “The power of cinema is it draws on [our] collective history, and I feel like the film harnesses our understanding of the second World War, but yet opens a door into a very particular and noble and quirky bunch of guys and a girl who really changed where we are now and what we understand our contemporary culture to be.”
Clooney and Heslov hope the film spurs further discussion about the repatriation of artworks whose provenances are still being discovered and about the importance of art in our collective cultural legacy.
“You have to remind people that what we’re talking about isn’t just these paintings on a wall that some people can look at and get and some can’t, but it’s about culture,” said Clooney. “It’s about these monuments and these sculptures, but it’s also just about the fabric of our culture and our history. It is mankind’s way of recording history.”