V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer

Movie landmarks

Published online at www.msn.ca's Travel section, March, 2010.

They may have no lines and may give rather wooden performances, but these characters have been known to tower above the biggest names in Hollywood.

Famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, the ancient pyramids of Egypt, and the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, have all played starring roles in box office hits as either treacherous villains or steadfast allies: Trapdoors and death-defying heights become foils for swashbuckling heroes, while the glimmer of sparkling lights inspire romance and love.

Here are a few favourite blockbuster hits which centre around famous international landmarks.

Eiffel Tower

Paris When it Sizzles
Audrey Hepburn and William Holden, 1964

Why, out of the hundreds of movies to feature the world’s most recognizable and glamourous landmark, mostly in varying states of destruction from freak natural disasters or as a platform for swashbuckling fight scenes and death-defying falls, have we chosen an old, Audrey Hepburn movie from 1964?

Simple: Because in this flick, the Eiffel Tower is centred around lurve.

In Paris When It Sizzles, Hepburn plays an adorable yet naive secretary to writer Richard Benson (played by William Holden) who has two days to deliver a screenplay to his Hollywood producer. Together, they grind out a script that alternates comedically between suspense, cowboy western, romance and musical, with the Tour Eiffel in the backdrop. Throughout their collaboration, the unlikely pair fall in love. The title of the “film within the film”: The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower.

Empire State Building

Sleepless in Seattle
Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, 1993

Scene: After confessing to her fiance that she is in love with a man she hasn’t met, who she heard speak on a call-in radio show, and lives clear across the country, Annie Reed (played by an irresistible Meg Ryan) looks out the window of the restaurant and sees the Empire State Building light up in the shape of a big red heart.
“It’s a sign,” she says decidedly.

Inspired by one too many viewings of An Affair to Remember, in which the lovers promise to meet atop the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day, Reed races across town hoping that her fated love interest, Sam Baldwin (Hanks) is waiting for her. The movie may alternate between Seattle and Baltimore, but the Empire State Building gets all the good jokes and the final love scene.

Pyramids of Egypt

The Mummy Returns
Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, 2001

Pyramids set the (blue) stage for this action-packed adventure film that weaves cursed mummies, scary underworld dealings, hybrid Scorpion-human kings and armies of jackal-headed warriors into your usual tale of love and deception.

In the desert oasis of Ahm Shere, sits a diamond-crested, Golden Pyramid, built in a deal with the underworld devil in exchange for conquering the world. Like all tales of hubris go, however, things don’t go exactly as planned, and the misguided warrior is transformed into a scorpion-beast, trapped inside the pyramid, and allowed to awaken every 5,000 years to give the business of world domination another go.

Throw in a magic bracelet, a precocious, 8-year-old troublemaker, mummy slayers in love, and a few duels to the death inside said mystical pyramid, and you’ve got yourself a blockbuster.

Gloucester Cathedral

Harry Potter series, started in 2001-final film projected to be released 2011
Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson

When location scouts set out to bring the magical halls of Hogwart’s to life, Gloucester Cathedral was a natural choice for its famous cloisters and haunting Gothic architecture.      Remember the scenes where talking portraits come to life, as students climb the winding stairs of academia? Or toilet-dwelling ghost Moaning Myrtle and her annoying groanings in the ladies loo? And the mysterious, blood-red writing that appears on the walls in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets? All shot in Gloucester Cathedral.
To disguise the famous landmark and make it unrecognizable, filmmakers hid modern signs, locks and electrics under panels painted to look like stone walls and covered the hundred tombstones on the cloister floors with roofing felt, also painted to match the stone-flagged floor.

Petra, Jordan
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989
Harrison Ford, Sean Connery
As far as swashbuckling heroes of rugged good looks with great fedora-heads go, Indiana Jones is our favourite. In this installment of the franchise, audiences not only discover the complexities of “Junior’s” character in the father-son relationship with dad Henry (Connery), many get their first real glimpse of Petra, Jordan, a staggeringly beautiful desert city that inspires mystery, intrigue and mysticism. Its Hollywood debut was also saved for the end of the movie, when cameras zoomed in on the entrance of the Treasury, also known as Al Khazneh, as the final resting place for the fabled Holy Grail. Lost to the western world after the 14th century, this lost city — carved entirely into rock — was rediscovered in 1812 by a Swiss explorer. In 1985, it was designated as a World Heritage Site.

The Colosseum, Rome
Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, 2000

It is Rome’s arena of death, an amphitheater that could seat 50,000 roaring, blood-thirsty spectators who egged gladiators on as they plunged swords into their nemeses, or watched gruesome executions like a day at the movies.
In Ridley Scott’s movie, gladiators fight to the death in a colosseum recreated through the magic of CGI — and movie-vigilantes have made a hobby of dissecting historical inaccuracies.
Some say, for instance, that the Colosseum was rebuilt out of proportion — that the exterior looks about 1.5 times bigger than what it really is. Others point out that the movie depicts men watching the spectacles alongside women, when most of the seats would have been occupied by men. Similarly, a scene showing an aerial view of Rome also depicts the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, built more than a hundred years after the events in the film. So now you know.

Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lampur, Malaysia
Sean Connery, Catherine Zeta-Jones, 1999

It’s the setting of the movie’s final and largest heist: $8 billion big ones from an international bank inside the twin towers to coincide with the countdown of the new millennium. When security catches on, the 88-story,  452-metre tall building serves as a dramatic backdrop for hot pursuit. In Tarzan-like stunts, insurance investigator Gin (Zeta-Jones) and art thief Mac (Connery) swing from — what must be industrial-strength — Christmas lights and parachute down canal-like ventilation shafts. I mean, really, Christmas lights?
Between 1998 and 2004, the Petronas towers were the tallest buildings in the world until the arrival of Taipei 101, a financial building and skyscraper in 2004. It remains the tallest twin towers in the world.

Angkor Wat and surrounding temples, Cambodia
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Angelina Jolie, 2001

Some of the most breathtaking scenes in this adventure film featuring Jolie and her bubbies required no editing work (ie. “enhancement”) or camera trickery. Stretching over 400 square kilometres, Angkor Archeological Park houses the remains of the Khmer civilization between the 9th to the 15 century. Colossal tree roots gently entwine ancient temple ruins, which in themselves are masterful feats of construction. In scenes shot at Siem Reap, the bombastically fierce tomb raider Lara Croft (Jolie) must retrieve the other half of a triangle talisman that gives its possessor the ability to control time. Another scene shows off the sacred beauty of Ta Prohm, where overgrown, serpentine trees drape ancient chamber entrances. Here, Croft encounters a mysterious little girl, who presumably represents the spirit of her deceased father.

Buckingham Palace
The Queen
Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, 2006

There was, and perhaps never will be, no larger event in modern history that could bring the world to Buckingham Palace than the tragic death of Princess Diana in 1997. The outpouring of the world’s grief landed square on the doorstep of this iconic British landmark — the springboard for this Oscar-winning film. Audiences are given an intimate look into the British monarchy in the film and are made to empathize with Her Majesty the Queen, when at the time she was vilified for keeping well, mum, on the subject immediately following Diana’s death. Scenes in the movie alternate between London and Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where the Queen and Prince Philip are summering. But some of the most poignant moments can be found along the flower-lined gates of Buckingham Palace, as the scenes aren’t far from our collective memory and accurately depict the world in the mourning.

The White House
Independence Day
Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, 1996

We’re not so sure how well the blowing up of The White House would go down today — alien invasion or not  — but in 1996 when Independence Day came out, the dramatic obliteration scene and marketing campaign that featured a giant mothership hovering over the U.S. capital raked in millions. At the time, the shot of the White House’s destruction was described as a milestone in visual effects, and won the Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual effects, beating out Twister and Dragonheart. Detonating the model — which measured 3 metres long and 1.5 m wide — took a week to plan and required 40 explosive charges. No politicians were hurt in the making of the film.

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