George Clooney is back in uniform, in occupied Europe, in the ultimate treasure hunt, The Monuments Men. The film is based on the 2010 non-fiction book of the same title by Robert M. Edsel, and Clooney takes on duties as actor, director, producer and co-writer.
Set during the later stages of World War II, the story tracks a squad of unlikely daredevils, comprising museum directors, art scholars and archivists who are willing to risk their lives to rescue a trove of artworks stolen from Jewish collections by the Nazis.
They arrive just in time to stop Hitler's plan of destroying the remaining art by the war's end, allowing the team to retrieve five million cultural works by the likes of Michelangelo, Picasso, Rembrandt, and Dali.
"This was the most art ever stolen in the world," Clooney says, "And it's a story that's not well-known. Together with my partner, Grant Heslov, we were fascinated by it. This is a very specific, very big moment in history in terms of our culture and it is certainly a worthwhile story to tell.
Hitler wanted these works of art destroyed because it was considered degenerate art."
Clooney gathered together an ensemble cast of such off-screen buddies as Matt Damon, Bill Murray, and John Goodman.
"We cast people who knew how to drink a lot," Clooney jokes.
Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville represents Britain and for France it's The Artist Oscar winner, Jean Dujardin.
"All the roles were written for these specific actors. The tricky part for me was getting the tone right because we wanted funny stuff in there, and watching Matt Damon speak French is as funny as anything I've seen," he deadpans.
Though Damon was the title character in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, Clooney says his movie is influenced by Hollywood war films of the 1960s. "Grant and I watched all of the John Sturges films, like The Great Escape, and Battle of the Bulge which helped us. Also, you have to remember, these guys weren't soldiers; they were old, and they were dropped off in Normandy a month after D-Day, so there's a little of The Dirty Dozen in it."
It's not all men in uniform. Cate Blanchett has supporting role as a Parisian curator which is small but integral to the plot. "As for Cate, of course, we worked together on The Good German [Steven Soderbergh's movie set in post-surrender Berlin] and that was a great experience," says Clooney. "I called her up and said, 'I'm working on this script and I'd really love you to do it.' So, I flew out to Australia just for one night - which is a long flight and lot of jetlag - and I went to see her. We talked, I sent her the script and she said yes. So I started writing her part."
Shot in Germany - at the Babelsburg Studio in Potsdam as well as in Berlin - for a reported budget of US$70 million ($83.7 million), it's not the blockbuster Clooney had hoped for, although the movie has already made its money back. The reviews, however, have been decidedly mixed, though he doesn't seem too surprised.
"It wasn't easy to get this film made; when you're going to write a movie about saving art, every studio went, 'Oh my God, a movie about art. Kill me'."
Having given the subject matter much thought, is there a piece of art Clooney would risk his life for?
"I don't think I'd lay my life down for a Picasso or any other object - a family member or a dog, yes. That was the difficulty in telling this film because it's not merely the piece of art, it's art itself." He pauses. "I have a flag that was over my Uncle George's coffin and although if the house was burning I wouldn't run in to get that flag, if I was on the street and there were a bunch of neo Nazis standing on top of an American flag and setting fire to it, I might very well risk my life to make them stop. Because that's what the flag represents," he says. "It's the timeline of our culture. Same with this story."
Who: George Clooney
What: The Monuments Men
When: Opens at cinemas next Thursday