U.S. Capitol Scale Model

The Arkansas State Capitol is a three-quarters scale replica of the national capitol building in Washington, DC, a fact that some movie-makers have taken advantage of. For many years, the dome bore a charred scar from the well-intentioned, but overzealous special effects crew of "Under Seige," which was released in 1985.


Boy is my face red! According to Arkansas Secretary of State Charlie Daniels, quoted in Seth Blomley's article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (2Apr2006 B1:6), the smoky discoloration on the dome is due to algae and lichen, not a movie crew's pyrotechnic. There was an explosion on the capitol grounds connected to the movie mentioned above, but it wasn't on the dome and the movie guys cleaned up after themselves.

It looks like I've been caught perpetuating one of Arkansas' urban legends.



After receiving a note from reader Chris Lesher, who said he distinctly remembered the giant smudge on the Capitol dome and news articles to that effect, I went to the library and looked it up. Chris was right. The movie pyrotechnics crew made a giant sooty smear about thirty feet across on the dome back in October of 1985.

"Under Siege" was a made-for-TV movie on NBC about a terrorist attack by a baddie named Ladin. Today, twenty years later, that coincidence seems almost creepy, but back in 1985 the US was funding Bin Ladin's Afghan resistance against the Soviets. He was one of the good guys, believe it or not. Actually the screenwriter was not being prescient. The fictional terrorist, as written by Watergate journalist Bob Woodward, was named Abu Ladeen, a childishly obvious disguise of the name Abu Nidal, who was then bad guy #1. I think it's more of a creepy coincidence that Nidal is Ladin spelled backwards. If you want to play still more provacative word games, go back to the crusades and find the same character string in the name of history's most famous jihadist, Saladin; but then we'll let the Bible Code enthusiasts worry about that one.

But back to the movie and the special effect in question. The tech crew pasted a steel plate on the dome and stretched a wire from the plate to the National Old Line Insurance building across the street. A styrofoam rocket strung on the wire was to streak across the open space and hit the strike plate, at which point the special effects guys would trigger a propane explosion preset around the strike plate. After everything was over, they had a big black cardboard cut-out that would be attatched to the dome to represent the breach caused by the blast.

Things didn't go exactly as planned.

The rocket got snagged on its guide wire about 3/4 of the way across. They set off the explosion anyway, but they substituted gasoline for propane. Gasoline makes a big oily scary cloud moreso than does propane. It also makes a big sooty mark. Lots and lots of this movie was shot in Pulaski County and this was the last sequence to be shot, so you draw your own inference about the sudden change in fuels.

Then Secretary of State Bill McCuen was steamed about the whole business. He was told there would be a small mark that would be easily cleaned and here he was with this huge wad of soot on the state capitol dome.

As soon as the stones were cool, he sent up a cleaning crew to try to clean a portion that could be easily reached. According to them it wiped right off. The movie people assured McCuen that one good rainstorm would take care of the whole thing.

I didn't see any followup stories about how successful the cleanup effort was, but another movie crew came to film explosions at our capitol building a year later for the TV miniseries "Amerika" (about a Soviet invasion of the US) and they had to hire a crew specializing in cleaning up after movie special effects. The next year a movie titled "Stone Cold," about a biker gang rampaging in the national capitol, filmed action sequences in the building and on the grounds.

Since these three movies were filmed in the same place in three consecutive years, sometimes people get them mixed up. I hope this clears things up. I know I myself had held some false notions about the episode.


Sources: Arkansas Gazette: 27Sep86, A3:4; 18Oct85, A1:2; Arkansas Democrat 18Oct85 D1:3; 19Oct85 B1:4.

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