by Hywel Davies
There’s no easy way to segue into this question, so we’ll just say it: is Die Hard a Christmas movie? Yes! … No! … Maybe? Well, the diplomatic answer would be both; but we’re not here to be diplomatic, we need answers and we needed them back in 1988. So, before we get into all the nitty gritty, we need to ask ourselves what all this watercooler debating is all about? For those who have been living like the Grinch for the past 29 years, let’s have a recap with no restraint on spoilers. If you haven’t seen it already, the hell have you been doing with your life? Get on it!
The story follows off-duty New York police officer John McClain [Bruce Willis]. A no bullshit blue-collar Joe who you’d happily share a couple of beers with and shoot the shit. Does he follow the rules? Fuck no, but goddammit he’s a good cop. The scene is set with McClain landing in L.A. with the intention of reconciling with his estranged wife Holly [Bonnie Bedelia] at her new office at the Nakatomi Plaza. Being Christmas Eve an all, John arrives during the office Chrimbo-do. But as he freshens up in the room over, a group of German terrorists led by Hans Gruber played by the late and ever so missed Alan Rickman come storming in and do a little bit more than piss in the punch and snog your missus. The group seize the plaza and look to nab all $640 million from Mr. Nakatomi, who’s basically the big cheese of this company if you couldn’t already guess.
Long story short, McClain becomes a one-man army against the terrorists. Taking them out one by one, the film climaxes with the final showdown between himself and the infamous Gruber who take their personal beef to the roof of the tower in one hell of a Mexican stand-off. In a blaze of Hollywood glory, Gruber falls to his death and McClain gets his wife back in one piece and they ride off in a limo with Vaughn Monroe’s ‘Let It Snow’ playing as the credits roll. Without a shadow of a doubt Die Hard is one of the greatest action films of all time, but Christmas film? Let’s break it down.
On the surface, Die Hard could be set at literally any time of year and still retain its title as an 80s classic. In fact, it was even released in July as a summer blockbuster. The intention was not for it to become a holiday movie at all, but an explosive flick that you stuffed your face full of popcorn to. When you think Christmas; terrorists, explosions, bloody violence, guns and the harsh language don’t exactly come to mind. Put it this way, if Die Hard was released in December, would we have taken it seriously as an action film? Probably not, I’d wager. The fact it was released when it did is a big hint of who was going to see this movie at the time. You can hardly take the whole family to see an R-rated movie, and there’s no real reason to do that in the summer anyway. Besides, action movies were the be all and end all of the Hollywood money making machine during the 80s, not Christmas.
You have to take the bigger picture into consideration as well. The 80s weren’t afraid of using a gimmick in their movies or simply wearing their cheese on their sleeve, especially in the action genre. In Die Hard’s case, Christmas seems more like a novelty than a central theme. At no real point does Christmas play a significant role in driving the plot but acts more like the icing on the cake. In other words, not only does McClain save the day, stop the bad guys and win back his wife, but it’s also Christmas, brilliant!
Finally, why doesn’t the rest of the series, minus the sequel, follow suit? Personally, Die Hard: With A Vengeance is my favourite out of the five films, but generally speaking people don’t watch that one at this time of year. This comes back to the gimmick argument. If Die Hard was truly a Christmas film then the following three films after Die Hard 2 would have at least some reference to the holiday, which they don’t. The truth is, this film opened a lot of doors for a butt-load of action movies that for better or worse basically used the film’s classic explosive formula. Out of all the films that copy and pasted this movie, not a single one was even remotely came close to being festive.
So, there we have it, Die Hard is not a Christmas film; case closed, we can all go home, right? Wrong! We are forgetting to ask the most important question of all: what makes a Christmas film in the first place? Just because Die Hard doesn’t stand out like Miracle On 34th Street or It’s A Wonderful Life (Fun Fact: the director of the latter [Frank Capra] funnily enough even admitted that he never intended his masterpiece to be a Christmas film in the first place), it doesn’t mean the troupes and traditional values of a Christmas film aren’t present in the movie. In fact, if you read between the lines Die Hard does a bang-up job of ticking all these boxes.
We’ve mentioned already that the film is set on Christmas Eve. Though obvious, many people claim that this doesn’t necessarily give it the right to be pigeonholed into this genre. It’s a fair enough statement. For example, Lethal Weapon (that’s another conversation for another time), Eyes Wide Shut and Sleepless In Seattle all take place or involve Christmas to some degree but aren’t really regarded as such. So, what makes Die Hard special? One big factor is that those aforementioned films didn’t utilise Christmas as a heavily layered background feature that acts as the moral basis and foundation of their story.
Though it doesn’t push the whole traditional aspect, it doesn’t need to because it rewrites the rules for a contemporary setting. One of the first scenes McClain strolls into an office Christmas party, though technically they’re celebrating a big multi million deal about a bridge in the Philippines or something, but it’s clear that these festivities are a little more seasonal than your average soiree. What’s more relatable than a Christmas without a proper workplace piss-up in this modern era, eh?
You have the odd decoration here and there that visually reminds you when the film is set, but the where film references the holidays strongest is through subtle nods relevant to the plot and metaphorical imagery. The famous example comes in the form of McClain writing ‘Now I have a machine gun, Ho-Ho-Ho!’ on the chest of the first baddie he snubs out, along with placing a Santa’s hat on his head. It’s almost like an anti-Christmas present addressed to Gruber, as he festively mocks him with a bit of tongue and cheek. Only at Christmas could you get away with something like that.
If you look hard enough, there’s a whole plethora of references and themes that coincide with your typical seasonal movie. It’s this time of year that we’re thankful for what we have and get to share love with family and friends. McClain’s arc is this exact realisation. The whole point of him showing up in the first place was to make things right with his estranged wife and be one happy family for Christmas. Taken by surprise that he shows up at all, Holly, who by this point uses her maiden name Gennaro, doesn’t throw herself into his arms at first glance; oh no! They begin to argue over her career decision to move to L.A. and McClain’s stubbornness to stay in New York. Over the course of the film, though it took a squad of highly disciplined blonde terrorists to get him to figure it out, his journey ends up with him realising his faults, apologising for them and making amends. Ultimately, doing what’s right. This particular arc is quite common in Christmas movies, because at the heart of it that’s what Christmas is all about: togetherness, family and love.
In the final showdown, McClain also straps his pistol to his back with Christmas tape in a sneaky move to take down Gruber. What with the tower being incomplete and parts still under construction, surly regular duct tape would have been laying around everywhere. But oh no, only Christmas tape will do. Small but poignant, in this scene it’s almost like McClain is physically represented as being the spirit of Christmas who just lays down the law and takes out a couple of Scrooges in the process.
The verdict: Die Hard is indeed a Christmas film whether people like it or not. Metaphors and all themes aside, after 30 or so years of screaming ‘Yippee Ki-Yay, Motherfucker’ and blasting our finger guns at the screen, it wasn’t Die Hard that made itself a Christmas movie, but it’s audience. The zeitgeist that surrounds this movie has propelled it to this status. The gimmick grew thin as people actually began embracing this movie, making it a part of their Christmas routine just like what Jurassic Park, E.T: The Extra Terrestrial or The Great Escape have done. Die Hard wasn’t born this way, but gradually moulded over time to accidentally become what we know and love it to be today.
… Don’t get us started on Lethal Weapon!