Hollywood has a lengthy record of taking creative liberties while adapting history to film. Now, the long delayed and hotly anticipated World War II drama “The Monuments Men” — directed, written, and starring George Clooney — about Nazi fighting academics sworn to protect Europe’s most treasured artifacts, may have gone overboard for dramatic effect and is facing scrutiny for excluding one of the key members of the actual group from its script.
A piece by The Guardian reveals that forgotten member Ronald Edmund Balfour was a medieval historian from Cambridge University who volunteered his services after D-day to the MFAA, the special unit set up by the Allied Forces that was tasked with saving paintings, sculptures, historical documents, ancient buildings, libraries, and art historical artifacts that might be stolen or destroyed by the Nazis.
While the unit wasn’t small — an international outfit of 345 men and woman from 17 countries — Hollywood’s version of the story focuses on handful of individuals played by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, and Cate Blanchett (along with Clooney) and is based on the book by Robert Edsel.
However routine Balfour’s academic life may have been, his family argues that his actions during the war should have been heroic enough to warrant top billing in the film. During his time in the MFAA he accrued the rank of major with the Canadian army and was station in Northern France, Belgium, and Germany. While in Cleves in 1945 to save a 14th-century archive and stop troops from destroying the Steintor city gate, he was killed by an enemy shell.
Balfour has been honored posthumously numerous times in Germany, though the closest he comes to making it into the film is in the loose form of “Downton Abbey” star Hugh Bonneville’s character Donald Jeffries, a fictional English professor with a similar profile.
—Alanna Martinez (@lanna_martinez)
(Photo courtesy Kings College, Cambridge and The Coolector)