‘Monuments Men’ a tribute to WW2’s cultural heroes

In the years after World War II, baby-boomer kids all over the United States played soldier. Television broadcasts of war movies such as “The Longest Day” and “The Great Escape” were events, and “Combat!”, the series about a squad of American soldiers battling Nazis in occupied France, was don’t-miss TV.

Growing up in St. Louis, actor John Goodman was steeped in that sometimes very personal history.

“My neighborhood, where I grew up, all the parents were veterans,” Goodman said a few weeks ago at the National World War II Museum prior to a preview screening of the new World War II movie, “The Monuments Men.” Goodman now lives in New Orleans.

The actor’s father served in France. He said he’s always wanted to do a film that honors the men and women who served in World War II.

Based on a true story, “The Monuments Men” opens nationwide Friday. Goodman plays sculptor Walter Garfield, one of seven neither young nor physically fit museum directors, artists, architects, curators and art historians who volunteer to go on a dangerous mission to recover countless works of art looted by the Nazis.

“I’m thrilled that we could bring the film here,” Goodman said at the museum. “When I got the role, I came over here and did a little research to see what these guys carried into battle, what everyday things they had to deal with. It’s staggering.”

The World War II Museum’s Liberation Pavilion, due to open in late 2016, will include a Monuments Men exhibit.

Goodman co-stars in “The Monuments Men” with George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville and Cate Blanchett.

Clooney directed and produced “The Monuments Men” and co-wrote it with Grant Heslov. The film is based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.”

Goodman’s character in the film is based on a real-life member of the Monuments Men team, sculptor Walker Hancock. Like Goodman, Hancock came from St. Louis.

“He sculpted a piece that my mom and I would ride by every week when we’d take the bus to downtown St. Louis,” the actor said. “It’s an honor to tell his story and maybe get people more interested in it.”

“The Monuments Men” reunites Goodman with French actor Jean Dujardin, his co-star in 2011’s Oscar-winning “The Artist.”

“When we worked in ‘The Artist,’ Jean didn’t speak a word of English,” Goodman said. “We got along on that movie, but this time he spoke English very fluently. He picked it up very quickly, whereas I will never learn French. My brain just don’t work that way.”

Goodman previously appeared with Clooney in Joel and Ethan Coen’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” He also played a scene-stealing Hollywood denizen in the Clooney-produced Oscar winner, “Argo.”

Working with Clooney and Dujardin again and the rest of “The Monuments Men” was a blast, Goodman said.

“I probably had the best time I’ve ever had making a film,” he said. “We’d finish a scene, wait for another setup and just tell story after story, just laugh our rear ends off.”

“The Monuments Men” co-author Edsel also attended the screening at the World War II Museum. Edsel worked with screenwriters Clooney and Heslov on the movie’s script and spent several days on the set.

“It’s been a great collaborative process,” Edsel said. “I’m really proud of what they’ve come up with.”