If movie trailers are to be trusted, the new G.I. Joe flick features a scene where the Eiffel Tower is strafed by bomb-fire at its feet and topples over. This is not the first time the most famous landmark in Paris has taken a hit. So many movies have shown the tower being destroyed that it almost counts as a cinematic cliché, like scenes of lovers kissing against the background of the New York skyline
In the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds, a Martian attack devastates the tower, an event repeated more humorously in the 1996 Mars Attacks. Aliens also smack against the tower in Independence Day while a meteorite is the cause of ruin in Armageddon.
Why are filmmakers so in love with the idea of Eiffel Tower being wrecked? The obvious answer is that action-adventure movies are all about spectacle and there is no better way to show that something big is happening in the world than by blowing up a globally famous tourist site. Aside from the tower, it’s become almost de rigueur in apocalyptic sci-fi movies to show the destruction of the Statue of Liberty, the White House, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and so on.
But aside from the cheap and easy visual punch that comes from such images of landmark devastation, there might be something deeper at work. Oliver Stone once said that as a filmmaker he sees himself as a counterpart to the great builders of old, like those who made the pyramids and the great Asian temples. There is something to that: the landmarks of antiquity, like the movies of today, were designed to be awe-inspiring spectacles. But a counterpart is also a rival: filmmakers are in competition with the spectacles of the past, trying to out do earlier effects. And a rival is always worth rubbishing.
It’s not accident, I think, that so many horror films rely on some ancient object or person (a mummy, a vampire, a long-forgotten curse) coming back to life. The past can easily feel like a threat, a reproach to the living, a competitor that can’t be easily bested.
The great monuments of history are not just awe-inspiring; they are also a bit annoying and threatening. They put obligations on us: to take care of them or visit them. Surely there is part of us that wants to see the slate wiped clean, to be rid of all the weighty inheritance handed down by our too-busy ancestors.
The Russian fantasy-writer Sigismund Krzyzanowski evoked the horror of monuments in his 1927 book Vospominaniya O Budushchem [Recollections of the Future]. In that book, he images what would happen if the Eiffel Tower came to life:
The Eiffel Tower, a quadruped giant who held his steel head high above the traffic, chatter, and music of Paris, high enough, you understand, to put up with the noises of the crowd below, the busy streets, the bang and clamor, the shouts… Feeling hemmed in by the streets, the Eiffel Tower kicked sleeping apartment houses out of his way. They collapsed like cardboard boxes. Less frightened than embarrassed by his clumsiness, for the houses were joined to each other, and when one went down, others followed, he stomped along, crunch crunch. Meanwhile, Paris awoke: searchlights pierced the morning fog, fire sirens honked, and buzzing airplanes rose into the air. Whereupon, the Tower raised his elephant’s feet and began to make haste over roofs which crunched down with every step.
Thanks to Krzyzanowski, we can see that Eiffel Tower was the precursor to King Kong and Godzilla: a giant that towered over the city and threatened all around it. No wonder many film viewers have been comforted by the images of the monster being brought low. (The translation of Krzyzanowski, by the way, came from Guy Davenport).