I was recently on a train in Spain (which naturally went mainly on the plain), and I kept being distracted by a movie. A ghastly innovation, TVs in train compartments – especially when they’re positioned too high up to switch off. But at least the sound comes through headphones, so you can read in peace if you prefer. Anyway, much to the bewilderment of my friend Heather, who was happy to ignore it, I couldn’t stop checking up on this horrid, horrid film.
‘I don’t believe it, that’s Matthew Macfadyen!’ I’d say. ‘Oh yes?’ she’d say, not looking up from her Frommer’s Guide to the Alhambra. ‘Look, there’s Freddie Fox! These are good actors! Why are they in this thing?’ The film in question was a version of The Three Musketeers – as reinterpreted for the Xbox generation with a slinky female supervillain, a fantasy hot-air balloon shaped like a galleon, lots of anachronistic heist business and multiple explosions. I loathed it from every angle, but the clinching horror was this: every time a famous old building appeared (Notre Dame, the Palace of Versailles, the Tower of London), it was damaged, devastated or completely demolished, as if wanton collateral destruction were the only thing great old buildings are good for.
Obviously, I have noticed this phenomenon in films before. Years ago, I had to review a Lara Croft movie, in which there was so much violence done to antiquities that I wanted to run straight to the British Museum afterwards and hug an Elgin Marble. The Great Wall of China was used for a motorbike chase; Atlantis was no sooner discovered under water than systematically razed; and the Terracotta Warriors (no!) got caught in some crossfire (oh no!), which meant they were beheaded (no!) and also strafed with bullets (no! no! no!). Back on that train (in Spain), I tried really hard not to watch – but it was impossible. The fantasy airship snagged itself on Notre Dame, carelessly knocking gargoyles to the ground. When it arrived at Versailles, it made a heavy landing and then dragged along the ground, carving up the parterre. At which point I can honestly say I nearly burst into tears.
What kind of mind comes up with this? Obviously not someone who knows about paying for repairs. I think the only time I found this sort of thing amusing was in The Armstrong & Miller Show. There was a running sketch in which an art historian introduced us in hushed tones to a series of (doomed) antiquarian treasures – a book handwritten by St Francis of Assisi; a pen-and-ink drawing by Rembrandt; a glorious Flemish tapestry – and then accidentally snapped the book in half, set fire to the drawing (through a magnifying glass); or turned back to look at the tapestry to find that he’d caught a thread on a jacket button and had just unravelled it. And of course there was also the real-life incident when that poor man at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge tripped on the stairs and broke some priceless Chinese vases. For some reason, that really was funny.
Oh well. I wonder if one day they’ll make an action film in which Daniel Craig (say) parachutes into an ancient temple complex, and then leaves the site exactly as he found it, for future generations to enjoy? Wouldn’t that be nice? In Doctor Who, the space ship could land, quite carefully, alongside Big Ben, instead of slicing through its face and knocking its hands off. Superheroes meeting supervillains in the Cairo Museum could pause for a moment and mutually agree that it would be daft to risk damaging the treasures of Tutankhamun, so they could decide to fight outside.
In the meantime, the Alhambra was terrific when we got there. But curiously, neither Heather nor I experienced the impulse to blow it up, smash its tiles, or lay it waste in general. There’s obviously something wrong with us.
Read more from Lynne Truss in Saga Magazine.