A history of the Statue of Liberty getting destroyed or distorted in movie posters

"Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled audiences," say marketers for "Civil War" to "Cloverfield"

Published April 26, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

"Civil War" movie poster (A24)
"Civil War" movie poster (A24)

The marketing campaign for "Civil War" began with one image. Shortly before the film’s trailer premiered, A24 debuted a single poster announcing the production’s imminent arrival. This teaser features none of the movie's notable actors. It also doesn't offer specific glimpses into the plot. Instead, the "Civil War" poster features two snipers poised at opposite ends of the Statue of Liberty's torch. Sandbags dot the exterior of this torch. Everything on this poster exemplifies that this locale is now a go-to spot for soldiers rather than a tourist attraction. It's a striking image suggesting that no parts of America are off-limits in this national conflict. Everything can become a battleground.

Don’t you want to know what could lead to the chaos that resulted in the State of Liberty’s destruction?

This inaugural piece of "Civil War" marketing continues a long-running promotional trend for movie posters in distorting the Statue of Liberty. Over the years, decimating this iconic American landmark has become a go-to design motif for ominous movies involving cataclysmic circumstances. In the fictional universe of "Civil War," the titular conflict is something unprecedented. While the previous American Civil War had been split across two factions, the one in this film has divided the country into four different sectors, and this time they're duking it out with each other in large-scale battles with refined military firepower. Alex Garland's dystopian hit is all about thrusting both its characters and the audience into a seemingly impossible American nightmare. The "Civil War" poster hinging on the distortion of the Statue of Liberty, though, is far less idiosyncratic.

Hollywood loves to destroy national monuments for the sake of eye-catching spectacle. Just look at 1950s creature features. These titles informed by the horrors of the Atomic Age featured recognizable American landmarks going up in smoke. A big octopus takes down the Golden Gate Bridge in 1955's "It Came from Beneath the Sea." A year later in "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers," the titular otherworldly invaders attack recognizable locales like the White House. These instances of spectacle tend to play on fears as relevant in 2024 as they were in 1954. Landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and the White House have always been around. They’re seemingly eternal fixtures that only exist in America. If they can get wiped out, nobody or nowhere is safe.

That anxiety underpins the film industry’s love for blowing up and damaging big American landmarks. It also defines the trend of movie posters depicting the Statue of Liberty in disarray. One notable early example of this phenomenon is a pair of posters for 1981's sci-fi actioner "Escape from New York." Set in the distant future of 1997, "Escape from New York" takes place in a world where the America/Russia conflict has resulted in Manhattan becoming a massive unruly prison. When the President (Donald Pleasence) is taken hostage in this hideous domain, there's only one solution. To fight fearless criminals, you need one of your own. The unpredictable ex-Special Forces agent and federal prisoner Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is sent in to retrieve the President despite being the last guy anyone would think of as hero.

All of that mythology and story could be potentially difficult to communicate to moviegoers in a single image. Thus, the "Escape from New York" marketers leaned on skewing the Statue of Liberty to convey the movie's distinctive tone. One of these posters features a pair of handcuffs dangling from the arm of Lady Liberty. The other more famous poster shows the decapitated head of the statue looming in the background of a trio of humans (including Plissken) fleeing the city. Alternate posters for the film continued that theme.

Immediately, "Escape from New York's" posters suggest just how dire the world of this movie truly is. These striking visuals establish an ominous vibe that grabs your eye. However, they're also not throwing everything and the kitchen sink on the poster. Enough is left to the imagination to compel people to buy a ticket. Don’t you want to know what could lead to the chaos that resulted in the State of Liberty’s destruction?

In hindsight, these posters also suggest the cheeky anti-authority vibes of the film. "Escape from New York" is about rescuing the POTUS from the clutches of evil foes. However, neither protagonist Snake Plissken nor the movie has much respect for the President or any authority figures. Having the Statue of Liberty in shambles on the "New York" posters quietly revealed the feature's non-hagiographic approach to America. Nothing is sacred here. Not its leaders nor its monuments urging other countries to “give me your tired, your poor.”

A renaissance for disaster movies in the 1990s gave renewed urgency to posters depicting the Statue of Liberty or any American monument in tatters, with advancements in visual effects now making that possible. That included the White House getting blown up by alien invaders in "Independence Day" or Paris, France going up in smoke thanks to fragments of a massive asteroid in "Armageddon." The former movie even dedicated most of the back of its VHS case to an image of the State of Liberty in ruins. "Escape from New York's" poster lingered on the decapitated Statue of Liberty head to suggest a subversive ominous atmosphere. Now posters in that vein were decimating landmarks in the name of a blockbuster arms race. You couldn’t just promise spectacle to the viewer. You had to promise bigger spectacle than the last disaster movie. 

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This reasoning for this marketing fixation on the damaged Statue of Liberty endured into the 21st century. However, this is when it got amplified by unspeakably devastating real-world circumstances. The horrors of 9/11 made the destruction of seemingly indestructible New York City landmarks a very tangible prospect. Initially, Hollywood responded to this new status quo by removing reminders of 9/11 from their motion pictures. A "Spider-Man" teaser hinging on the Twin Towers was pulled from theaters. Fellow Sony/Columbia summer 2002 blockbuster "Men in Black II" reshot an entire climax that initially took place in this now-decimated location. However, eventually, Hollywood marketers returned to their old tricks. Not even a modern-day equivalent to Pearl Harbor could stop major studios from returning to the Statue of Liberty in ruins. In fact, posters for disaster movies like "The Day After Tomorrow" lingered on this monument's destruction. Now the promised ruin of the Statue of Liberty didn't signal a dystopian future; it grounded even the corniest disaster movies in something resembling reality. 

Here, viewers see the aftermath of the Statue of Liberty getting its head torn off.

This was especially true with Matt Reeves' 2008 monster flick "Cloverfield." That movie's entire marketing campaign oriented around the Statue of Liberty's decimation by the beastie Clover. With the entire movie captured via found-footage, "Cloverfield" especially evoked the terror of experiencing a 9/11-adjacent event in real time. There is no explanation for what’s going on. Tidy exposition to clarify the horrors is absent. All that’s clear is massive landmarks are perishing and that you need to run. This realistic tone rooted in ambiguity and the destruction of New York City infiltrates "Cloverfield’s" poster.

Here, viewers see the aftermath of the Statue of Liberty getting its head torn off. It's a striking and haunting image instilling a pit in your stomach on how ordinary people can navigate such grand chaos. This also makes the "Cloverfield" poster a visual inverse of the "Escape from New York" poster. How fitting since that earlier piece of marketing actually inspired this "Cloverfield" image in the first place! 

The ubiquity of these posters has continued into the post-2010 world. Subsequent Roland Emmerich movie "Independence Day: Resurgence" followed the practice. One of the many posters for this blockbuster features the Statue’s torch crumbling thanks to a lowering alien spacecraft. Meanwhile, even prestige TV got in on the act. "The Man in the High Castle's" debut poster, for example, features the Statue of Liberty performing the Sieg Heil salute. This creepy alteration instantly explains how this show occupies an alternate history in which the Nazis won World War II.

The enduring ubiquity of these kinds of posters isn’t just because of distinctly American post-9/11 anxieties. Global moviegoers also factor into these posters being so prominent decades after "Escape from New York’s" poster dropped. Mainstream big-budget movies and TV shows are often designed to be digestible to any viewer on the planet. Part of that is setting them in locations anyone can recognize, such as Los Angeles and New York City. There’s a similar rampant cognizance of big American landmarks.

However, the Statue of Liberty is particularly special in this regard. On paper, it’s supposed to symbolize the best attributes of America. A gift from the French, the sculpture holds a tablet inscribed with the date July 4, 1776 in Roman numerals, representing independence. A broken chain and shackle represents freedom from slavery. The lines, "Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," are inscribed on a plaque in the statue's museum. Here is a gigantic monument to the idea that anyone can come into this land of opportunity and find possibilities denied to them in their homeland.

That’s the kind of visual that promises something provocative and possibly in touch with the complexities of America as a country.

Of course, the reality of America is much more complex. It’s not a haven paradise, but, like many other superpower countries, susceptible to corruption, systemic rot and enacting colonial horrors on Indigenous people. The dissonance between the State of Liberty’s intent and the realities of America has always fascinated artists. A couple of the most striking shots of the original two "Godfather" movies, for instance, juxtaposes the brutalities of America in the foreground while the Statue of Liberty stands tall in the distant background. In these images, the realities and dreams of America inhabit the same frame. 

Posters distorting the Statue of Liberty are a continuation of this tradition while also trodding on visuals that everyone around the world are conscious of. What better way to convey the ominous ambiance of your production than an image like the Statue of Liberty emitting a slithery tongue? A promo for "The Strain's" third season takes it one step further:

That’s the kind of visual that promises something provocative and possibly in touch with the complexities of America as a country. Sure, such image build on a landmark that can be identified anywhere and everywhere. But they also speak to larger anxieties propelling the American public in different eras. 

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The Atomic Horror of the 1950s, the Cold War of the '80s, post-9/11 anxiety in the 2000s, the countless issues plagung America today . . . all of these woes have made Americans feel anxious about the very continued existence of this country. Movie marketing showing the Statue of Liberty getting distorted, including that "Civil War" poster, don’t just build on these fears. They also entice potential moviegoers with the promise of exploring those overwhelming anxieties in the relatively safe confines of a closed-off movie theater. Here, all the mayhem and political turmoil is confined to the silver screen. 

By Lisa Laman

Located on the autism spectrum and in Texas, Lisa Laman is a film critic, freelance writer, and lover of all kinds of movies. Her writing has been featured on sites ranging from AutoStraddle to the Dallas Observer to Fangoria, among many others. She is fiercely passionate about karaoke, queso, and pugs.

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