When Hollywood destroyed New York

In 1953, the heat generated by an atomic bomb test near the North Pole releases a dinosaur from its Arctic tomb. The frenzied beast promptly heads for New York, where it wreaks havoc on Manhattan, before being killed at Coney Island amusement park. Then, barely half a decade later, a superhumanly strong killer robot goes on the rampage through the Big Apple, causing destruction on an epic scale. Only the presence of mind of an heroic young American saves the city from being wiped from the face of the earth.

The scene from The Beast from 20.000 Fath
These are just two of the many disasters that befell New York in the  Cold War era. And though these apocalyptic episodes were played out in cinema screens rather than in real life (in the films The Beast from 20.000 Fathoms and 1958’s Colossus of New York), they reveal Hollywood’s fascination with the destruction of America’s most prominent city in the postwar age.
Lori Maguire of the University of Paris explores this very theme in “The Destruction of New York City: A Recurrent Nightmare of American Cold War Cinema”. “Fears of communist assault from without or within, about the arms race, including the possibility of nuclear holocaust, all found a natural arena of expression in science fiction,” he says. And, as “the American city” with “a special power and attraction”, New York was the perfect theatre to play out these anxieties.
The poster for The Collosus of New York
Indeed, barely had the dust settled on nuclear tests in the deserts of Nevada and Utah­ – provoking fears of contamination from fallout – than American directors were unleashing a barrage of calamities on New York.
Set in the year 3000, Captive Women (1952) showed three rival tribes fighting for power in the ruins of a city decimated by an atomic bomb. That same year, Invasion USA details the invasion of America and subsequent bombing of New York by “an unidentified enemy whose accents sound suspiciously Russian’.
Russians loomed large in the minds of Hollywood directors throughout the Fifties, says Maguire – so much so that, according to some estimates, as many as 43 destruction films were unveiled the very day after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957. New York was once again in the firing line, with a giant killer preying mantis devastating the city in Deadly Mantis (1957).
The scene from Deadly Mantis
Another spike in the number of attacks on New York arrived in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s election in the early Eighties. The reheating of the Cold War manifested itself in films such as 1980’s Superman II, which showed aliens destroying Times Square, and even Ghostbusters (1984), which gave the theme its own comic twist.
As Maguire points out, the end of the Cold War did not signal an end to the destruction films. Yet, in a ghoulish role reversal, could Hollywood have been reflected in real life? „Whether consciously or not, Osama bin Laden and the terrorists of 11 September 2001 gave reality to one of the most frequent representations of American anxiety,“ he writes.