February 6, 2014 11:10 AM EST

In 2012, Bob Balaban ran into George Clooney and his producing partner, Grant Heslov, at the New York City premiere of Argo. The next day, the veteran character actor got a call asking whether he’d like to be in Clooney’s next project, a World War II movie called The Monuments Men.

“I remember exactly what I thought,” Balaban says. “There are so many stories about World War II, and most of them have been told already, and this seemed a very large and important story not to have ever been told.”

It’s also, to be fair, one of the war’s more unusual stories. Art and antiquities experts hardly make for the typical subject of a Hollywood war film, but that’s what the movie’s eponymous subjects were. The men of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the Allied armies were charged with safeguarding cultural treasures threatened by the fighting and retrieving those stolen and stockpiled as future trophies for Adolf Hitler’s bizarre conceit: the Führermuseum.

In the film, which opens Feb. 7, Balaban and Clooney–who directed and, with Heslov, co-wrote the script–star alongside Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin (the Best Actor Oscar winner from The Artist) and Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham) as fictionalized versions of the professional curators and art historians who donned fatigues to save works such as Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, Vermeer’s The Astronomer and Jan van Eyck’s 15th century Ghent Altarpiece. What’s also notable about The Monuments Men is that the story it’s based on isn’t over yet. As Robert Edsel, who wrote the book that inspired the movie, puts it, “At the war’s ending, the work of the Monuments Men was really just beginning.”

A Monumental Task

The movie doesn’t go much beyond V-E day, but Edsel says the original Monuments Men–there were women in the unit too, though the film’s only female star is Cate Blanchett, who plays a museum staffer–stayed in Europe into the 1950s, sorting through some 5 million items. After that, they returned to an America that had moved on to the Korean War, and they didn’t boast about their accomplishments.

Harry Ettlinger served as a translator for the unit. When he thinks about the war, he remembers the 19-year-old infantryman who was the first in his training squad to be killed before he remembers the art he helped recover. “There were 16 million men and women in the armed forces of the United States during World War II. Don’t you think that each one of them had a story?” asks Ettlinger, whose movie counterpart is played by Dimitri Leonidas. “A story like what Harry Ettlinger did is lost, and what [Monuments Men Captain James] Rorimer did, that was lost in this multitude of stories.”

In the 1990s, that started to change as the looting side of the story became better known. Archives were newly available after the Cold War. Books like Lynn Nicholas’ The Rape of Europa told the history of Nazi looting, and the restitution case centered on Egon Schiele’s painting Portrait of Wally began. About the same time, Edsel began to wonder how the art that survived had done so, a line of inquiry that would eventually lead him to write The Monuments Men.

What he discovered was worthy of “you can’t make this stuff up” status. To wit: one of the officers’ luckiest breaks came when Captain Robert Posey, who taught soldiers based in Germany about the historic significance of the buildings they were stationed in, had a toothache. The local dentist turned out to have a son-in-law who had served with the Nazis in Paris when they began to fill eastbound trains with priceless art. The son-in-law kept a list of the loot and knew where it had been sent. It was that toothache, which is given its due in the movie, that eventually led the Monuments Men to Hitler’s personal stash of the finest plunder the continent had to offer.

The restitution work that they began is still ongoing. Just months ago, the discovery of another trove of Nazi-looted art made news. Edsel estimates that hundreds of thousands of such works of art have yet to be found and returned to their owners. He hopes that the high-profile publicity that is The Monuments Men will prompt those with information about art of dubious provenance to come forward–his foundation even has a toll-free tip line, 866-WWII-ART–and the rest of the world to pay attention.

“These are the lessons of history that we ignore at our own peril,” says Edsel. “All the stuff that survived today, it didn’t survive by accident.”

To Protect and Preserve

Even as the story of The Monuments Men gets its time in the spotlight, there’s evidence that some lessons have been learned. While headlines have been filled with legal battles over art looted by Nazis, the U.S. military has focused anew on protecting culture.

Take, for example, the work of Matthew Bogdanos, the classics-trained New York City assistant district attorney and Marine Reserve colonel who in 2003 led a team to retrieve items stolen from the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad. (Bogdanos described his quest in the book Thieves of Baghdad.) Like the Monuments Men, he was driven to recover the markers of a civilization threatened by conflict. He asked his supervisor for permission to go after the missing artifacts, estimating that he could do it in three to five days–which was about 10 years ago. Now back in New York, he’s still on the trail of some missing items. (“Oops,” he tells TIME.)

Meanwhile, the Combatant Command Cultural Heritage Action Group (CCHAG), first funded in 2006, has developed products like decks of playing cards for troops that convey information about cultural sites in combat zones.

“Though we haven’t recently had a huge formal initiative like the World War II Monuments and Fine Arts officers,” says Laurie Rush, a military archaeologist who helped found CCHAG, “we have had extraordinary soldiers who had the right background–art historians or preservation professionals–who also saved cultural property.”

Rush can name troops who helped protect Iraqi sites like the ziggurat at Aqar Quf, the Baghdad zoo and the ancient city of Hatra. Rush also points to Corine Wegener, an Army Reserve major sent to the Iraq National Museum after looting began because of her civilian training as a museum curator. Wegener has retired from the Army–she works for the Smithsonian now–but is serving as an adviser for a new military initiative that recruits people with art history and archaeology skills. If that sounds like a modern take on the Monuments Men, that’s because it pretty much is.

It’s not just the Army. UNESCO, the U.N. group that oversees the implementation of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, has its eye on the strife in Syria and Mali. Its officers know they cannot save everything–Jan Hladik of UNESCO gives the example of the 2001 destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, by the Taliban, a case in which the parties in conflict were not interested in international conventions–but they do help make sure troops and officials know how to protect cultural artifacts where bullets are flying.

No matter how great the art, cultural commandos aren’t expected to exchange their own survival for that of paintings and sculptures, but there is always risk when operating in the midst of violence. Two of the Monuments Men were killed during the war, and more recently, Bogdanos recalls, one of his men was shot dead by a sniper outside Iraq’s museum. So whether it’s a portrait by Gustav Klimt or a Mesopotamian relic from the birthplace of Western civilization, the same central question lies at the heart of each case, and it’s a lofty one: Is a work of art worth a human life?

Those in the fictionalized version of the story thought about the question too. “It’s not up to me to answer, but it’s certainly worth asking,” John Goodman tells TIME. “If the person’s willing to sacrifice their life–and they were–then it must be [worth it]. Wiser people than I did sacrifice their lives to preserve something they thought was worthwhile.”

This appears in the February 17, 2014 issue of TIME.

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com.

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