The Monuments Men is a World War II action-drama-comedy, directed by George Clooney, based on the real-life escapades of a group of art history scholars who were assigned to find and protect the priceless artworks of central Europe, and stop it from falling into the hands of the Nazis. With an all-star supporting cast that includes Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville, the film certainly has pedigree, but many people have complained about the unusual tone the film adopts, veering from comedy to serious drama and back again, often within the same scene. The deliberate pacing and intentionally old-fashioned style of the film has also been criticized for being out of touch with modern audiences, but these were some of the reasons I felt the film succeeded: the film is less about moving from one action sequence to another and is more about the camaraderie between the men at the center of the story, and about the importance of the art they are tasked with protecting.
The score for The Monuments Men is by Alexandre Desplat, working for Clooney for the third time after The Ides of March in 2011 and Argo in 2012, which Clooney produced. Desplat’s score, much like the film, is intentionally old fashioned, and may sound dated and cliché to some listeners less attuned to this sort of music. Written for a full symphony orchestra, Desplat’s main theme is a belter: it intentionally channels those great old British war movie themes that people like Ron Goodwin and Malcolm Arnold used to write, like Bridge Over the River Kwai or 633 Squadron, and has the same militaristic, slightly pompous, upbeat, can-do attitude that those scores all had in spades. Not only that, the score also seems to have a little bit of Americana to it too, mostly via classics like 1941, Midway, The Great Escape or Stripes, from John Williams and Elmer Bernstein. While this might sound something of a mish-mash, Desplat handles it all perfectly, weaving his main theme in and around several set-pieces, changing up the tempos and altering the emotional content masterfully.
After a subtle opening in “The Roosevelt Mission”, Desplat sets his cards on the table in the second cue, “The Monuments Men”, which presents full performances of the A and B sections of his main theme: the A section is the jaunty march, all warm horns, light strings, trilling flutes and parade ground snares, while the B section (which starts at 0:37 and lasts for around 20 seconds) is more serious and martial, imbued with heroism and sense of adventurous purpose. These two themes form the cornerstone and backbone of the entire score, featuring in one form or another in virtually every cue thereafter.
In “Basic Training” it flits in and out of a more straightforward comedy cue, accompanying the slightly ridiculous scenes of Goodman and Murray attempting a military obstacle course. Later, in both “Stokes Talks” and at the end of “Jean-Claude Dies”, the A-section is re-imagined in a much more serious, reflective tone for piano and strings, while at the end of both “Sniper” and “Heilbronn Mine” it is heard, subtly, on a solo piano in amongst all the frenetic action. Meanwhile the B section appears, on soft warm horns and a distant-sounding piano, in “The Letter”, underscoring one of the film’s more poignant death scenes.
In addition to the main theme, there is a more serious theme that seeks to underscore the enormity of the task the men must undertake; it appears briefly in the opening “The Roosevelt Mission”, and re-occurs in both “Normandy” and “Deauville”, although in the latter it has a more mischievous air with use of plucked pizzicato strings. A Gallic-flavored love theme for Claire and James, Cate Blanchett and Matt Damon’s characters, underscores their relationship in Paris. It first appears as a subtle music-box motif for harp and glockenspiel at the beginning of “Champagne”, before getting a much more fulsome recapitulation during the first half of the lovely “Claire & Granger”, in which soft, warm strings and harp glissandi carry the melody. The second half of the cue then revisits the Mission theme, for adventurous French horns, strident strings and light metallic percussion.
A mysterious, slightly religioso woodwind motif for the Ghent Alterpiece, one of the relics the Monuments Men search for, makes an brief appearance in the cue of the same name, parrying back and forth with the recurring motif for the Nazis, which is heard on muted horns atop a strident string ostinato. I wish there was more of the Alterpiece theme, as it’s really beautiful, but it only ever comes back once more during the meat of the underscore, at the very end of the lovely “Castle Art Hoard”. The Nazi motif is much more prevalent, however, reappearing forcefully in the dramatic and intimidating “I See You, Stahl”, the low-key but tension-filled “Siegen Mine”, and the militaristic “Heilbronn Mine”. Cleverly, the Nazi theme is completely flipped on its head in “Stahl’s Chalet” into a bumbling Bavarian oompah-band dance, as the former SS commander attempts to hide his identity from the Men.
There are a few action sequences too, including the exciting aforementioned “Sniper”, the bubbling woodwind-heavy “Into Bruges” (which has a heavy 1990s John Williams influence), the edgy and tempestuous “The Nero Decree” and the energetic first half of the aforementioned “Jean-Claude Dies”, which contains some fabulous call-and-response brass triplets and timpani hits reminiscent of Desplat’s score for Birth.
The nine-minute “Finale” is superb; it opens with a relentless staccato action sequence that reminds me of Michael Giacchino’s show-stopping ‘Taking Out the Railgun’ piece from the original Medal of Honor score, a celebration of flashing string figures, powerful brass calls and forward motion. A soft variation on the Main Theme for woodwinds, a couple of brief statements of the Ghent Alterpiece theme, moments of anxiety and intensity, stately performances of the Mission theme for brass and heavy strings, a lovely rendition of Claire & Granger waltz, and even a subdued version of the Nazi theme all play off each other excellently, providing a rich and full-textured overview of the score’s main thematic identities. This segues into a cheerful, whistled version of the main theme – more echoes of Malcolm Arnold and River Kwai – in the “End Titles”, before the score ends with a wholesome rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by vocalist Nora Segal that brings the album to a nostalgic close.
The Monuments Men is a superb throwback to an era when the music in films of this nature had personality, and weren’t afraid of emotion or sentiment. Alexandre Desplat, and apparently George Clooney, both understand the power good film music can bring to a project like this, which is intentionally designed to reflect a style of filmmaking that was less cynical. I can certainly see how less seasoned listeners who are not used to this manner of scoring might find Desplat’s merry main theme unpalatable at best, downright annoying at worst, but personally I loved it, and found it refreshingly memorable.
Also: for those of you who plan to see the film, watch out for Desplat’s acting cameo as Emile, a French resistance operative who helps Matt Damon sneak into Nazi-occupied Paris. He has several lines, including one moment of actual, proper emotional acting, and gets to drive a horse and cart, and fly a WWII-era bi-plane! How many film composers can say that?