George Clooney doesn’t just play an art saviour in The Monuments Men, he’s now taken on the role in real life.
CTV News reports that Clooney has inflamed Britain with his suggestion that the 2500-year-old objets d’art known as the Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Greece forthwith.
Released in theatres last Friday, The Monuments Men is based on real-life events and casts the Oscar-winning actor as a U.S. army lieutenant tasked with retrieving art treasures purloined by the Nazis during the final stages of the Second World War.
Clooney, who also co-produced and directed the film, took the character to another level at a Tuesday press conference in London, where he called for an “open discussion” on the fate of the ancient friezes.
According to Clooney, both the Vatican and the J. Paul Getty Museum have already shipped back pieces of the famous Parthenon Marbles, which raises the question “of whether or not one piece of art should be, as best as possible, put back together.”
Clooney added: “There are certain pieces that you look at and think, that actually is probably the right thing to do.”
Ownership of the Parthenon Marbles, which were originally part of the famous Parthenon temple, has been a long-standing issue between Greece and Britain.
According to Greek art historians, the marbles are “looted art,” which should be reunited with its original components in an Athens museum.
The British Museum, meanwhile, believes the marbles “are a part of the world’s shared heritage and transcend political boundaries,” which naturally means they believe the art works are best displayed in London, where the public can see them for free.
Originally part of the famous Parthenon temple, the ancient friezes were appropriated by the British diplomat Lord Elgin and shipped to London about 200 years ago. To the current generation of museum visitors, they are in fact known as the “Elgin Marbles.”
Enter Clooney and his movie. At the same press conference, the actor-director insisted that it wasn’t his intention to touch off a proprietary firestorm when he spoke out in favour of Greece’s ownership of the marbles in response to a Greek journalist’s question at the Berlin Film Festival last week.
Clooney also said that he had been told that, as an American, he couldn’t possibly understand the issues at stake.
Clooney’s Monuments co-star Matt Damon raised the ire of British reporters by saying, “That’s not actually an argument, to say, ‘Well, you’re American.’”
And it’s also possible that comic actor Bill Murray, who also appears in Monuments Men, added fuel to the fire with his opinion of the marbles ownership issue.
“It’s had a very nice stay here, certainly,” teased Murray. “But London’s gotten crowded. There’s plenty of room back there in Greece. England could take the lead on this.”
A loose adaptation of Robert Edsel’s book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, the film takes several liberties in telling the story of the Allied team that was shipped to Europe to prevent art treasures being destroyed or looted by the Nazis.
Among other carps, the movie version has been criticized for changing names and details and for excluding the role in the mission played by the late British historian Ronald Balfour, who doesn’t even appear in the film.
Clooney defended his dramatic license at the London press conference, saying, “We didn’t want to give any of these real men flaws that would be in any way upsetting to their families. We just wanted the ability to tell a story without offending anyone.”
But also present on Tuesday was the real Harry Ettlinger, one of the few surviving Monuments Men, who fled Nazi Germany with his family in 1938 and served with the art-retrieval team because he could speak German. Ettlinger is represented in the film by a character named Sam Epstein, who is portrayed by actor Dimitri Leonidas.
Now in his late eighties, the real Ettlinger was asked at the press conference whether saving art was worth a human life.
Ettlinger’s poignant response: “Art needs to be around us to make life more meaningful, more enjoyable. We would not like life with white walls around it.”
And memo to England: Greece wants its marbles back.
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