Documentary on Iowa-born World War II Monuments Men leader George Stout now online
George Clooney played him in “The Monuments Men” feature film in 2014, but his name was changed to Frank Stokes, so George Stout’s name continues to fly under the radar.
His actions, however, continue to change and preserve history.
And now his story can reach a worldwide audience in the documentary “Stout Hearted: George Stout and the Guardians of Art.” It’s the first project by filmmaker Kevin Kelley, 65, and producer Marie Wilkes, 66, of Iowa City, through the couple’s new nonprofit organization, New Mile Media Arts.
The 81-minute documentary debuted March 30, 2019, in Stout’s hometown of Winterset, then sold out all three screenings the following week at FilmScene in Iowa City. It has since traveled to 20 film festivals around the world, and now anyone anywhere can see it through the Heritage Broadcasting Service, a subscription video-on-demand platform and subsidiary of The Archaeology Channel.
It’s a good fit, since the Heritage motto, “Episodes of the Human Story: Films and more about our cultural legacy,” mirrors the New Miles motto, “Presenting stories of common people in uncommon situations.”
Few situations were more uncommon than Stout’s.
Born Oct. 5, 1897, 10 years before another hometown hero, Marion Morrison, aka John Wayne, Stout studied first at Grinnell College, then left to serve in World War I for two years, where he was assigned to a military hospital unit. According to his biography on the Monuments Men Foundation website, that’s where he “first saw the effect that war had on art and culture.” He returned to his home state, and began studying art and English at the University of Iowa in 1919, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1921.
He taught at the UI and the University of Pittsburgh, then earned his master’s degree at Harvard University in 1929, where his pioneering work flourished in applying science to art restoration. He became director of technical research at Harvard’s Fogg Museum and part-time conservator at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
As further noted in his online biography, “Fascinated with the science behind the artistic process, he conducted in-depth laboratory research on color spectroscopy, paint composition, methods of authentication, and the influence of atmospheric conditions on works of art.”
Those principles and techniques are still used today.
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When World War II broke out, he helped form the American Defense Harvard Group, which became instrumental in creating the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, later dubbed the Roberts Commission.
Stout enlisted in the Navy in 1943, and began developing aircraft camouflage. A year later, he was transferred to the Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program, and became one of the first Monuments Men to go ashore at Normandy. As leader of the special unit, he and his men worked near the front lines, finding, rescuing and transporting more than 5 million pieces of artwork stolen by Hitler and the Nazis.
He returned to the U.S. in late July 1945, and that October, was sent to Japan to help keep the country’s culture heritage from being sold by desperate residents or from becoming souvenirs for American soldiers, Kelley noted.
“He was a man who was very passionate about art and preserving it, making sure that the public has a chance to see it,” Kelley said. “At one point, he despised museum directors — it’s well documented — but he actually ended up becoming one later in life.”
Art conservation was his life’s calling, right up through his death July 1, 1978, in Stanford, Calif.
“I think you could call him a visionary,” Wilkes said. “He thought far beyond his contemporaries about the effect of war on cultural heritage, and the fact that we need to preserve our human heritage to learn from and to enjoy — and from the point of view of the future.
“You think of the military protecting these priceless monuments and objects of art and seeing their relevance. He would give advice to people in California in the ’70s, with helping them establish departments of conservation.”
Kelley, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker who retired from the University of Iowa in December 2017, learned of Stout’s legacy through former UI art museum director Sean O’Harrow. The subject came up while they were traveling to screenings for “Jackson Pollock’s Mural: The Story of a Modern Masterpiece,” which premiered at FilmScene in Iowa City in September 2015.
“He told me that our next film is going to be about George Stout,” Kelley said. “But I didn’t know who George Stout was. … He started to tell me, and of course, I’d known about ‘The Monuments Men,’ but I didn’t know about George Stout. Then I found out he was from Iowa and taught at the University, so that was just a pretty interesting story idea.”
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Kelley and Wilkes launched a three-year odyssey of research, interviews and filming in a process Kelley calls “storytelling.”
“You look at the person’s life and what they did, and unfortunately, good stories have conflict,” he said. “So you see how much conflict is in there, and yet for me, and for what our process is about, is (finding) some sort of inspiration that in the end is there. If it has those elements, if the story’s intriguing enough,” then he and Wilkes are intrigued, as well.
“And we always like to have an Iowa connection. It’s not necessary, but we like to have that local connection. People in the community like to search in their own backyard. It’s not always practical, but there’s something personal about it, too, because nobody else knows the story before you, usually. And from the filmmaker’s standpoint, is it a visual story.”
If the first step is the idea, Kelly said the next step is the “mechanics,” lining up interviews with experts.
“We pick our interviews like we’d cast a movie,” he said. “We have certain characters tell certain parts of the story. Everyone’s an expert when we make documentaries, so they all have a niche area of information that they can share.”
One of their first interviews was with former Iowa Rep. Jim Leach, who chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities before joining the law UI faculty and becoming the inaugural chair in Public Affairs in 2013. He also served as interim director of the UI’s art museum when O’Harrow left at the end of 2016.
Since Stout was the leader of the Monuments Men, the couple sought out two key interviews. The first was Robert Morse Edsel, who wrote “Rescuing da Vinci,” “Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” and “Saving Italy,” all dealing with the recovery of artwork stolen by the Nazis. He also founded the nonprofit Monuments Men Foundation.
The other key voice was Lynn H. Nicholas, who wrote the 1994 book, “The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War.” It was turned into a documentary in 2007, and Edsel served as a co-producer.
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Kelley and Wilkes kept the budget under $50,000, funded in part with grants. Travel for interviews ate up most of the costs. They also crisscrossed the country for film festivals, and took their project to three overseas festival.
Among their other interviews, they spoke with a librarian in Winterset, experts at Harvard, and with Motoko Fujishiro Huthwaite, Stout’s secretary in Japan, a Boston native whose family sought refuge in Japan during the war. She died of COVID-19 on May 4, at age 92.
Now, the couple’s New Mile Media Arts is turning its cameras toward the life of Elizabeth Catlett, sculptor, printmaker, educator and social activist. She considered Grant Wood her mentor, and studied at UI, where she became the first visual arts student in the United States to receive a Master of Fine Art degree.
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At a glance
• What: Documentary release: “Stout Hearted: George Stout and the Guardians of Art” • Created by: New Mile Media Arts, based in Iowa City
• Details: newmilemediaarts.org/current-production
• To view: By subscription to heritagetac.org