In the three decades since its release, Die Hard has become an essential part of many cinephiles’ festive rituals. Dr Vincent M. Gaine takes a look at how the film’s themes reflect ‘the true meaning of Christmas,’ intentionally or otherwise…
It is fair to say that Die Hard is one of the most influential and beloved action films ever released. With a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, both from audiences and critics, John McTiernan’s 1988 adaptation of Roderick Thorp’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever has a cherished place in cinema and in popular culture.
The film made movie stars out of then TV performer Bruce Willis and stage actor the late, great Alan Rickman. It cemented the phrase ‘yippie-ki-yay’ (with or without reference to ‘motherfucker’) into the public lexicon. It made the humble vest an icon of men’s fashion not seen since the days of Clark Gable and It Happened One Night, as well as reminding audiences that you walk around barefoot at your own risk.
So successful was the film in terms of the action movie template that it became an industry standard in terms of elevator pitches:
Under Siege – Die Hard on a battleship!
Passenger 57 – Die Hard on a plane!
The Rock – Die Hard on Alcatraz!
Star Trek: First Contact – Die Hard on a starship!
Snakes on a Plane – Die Hard on a plane (with snakes)!
Die Hard also became the subject of an annual debate over whether or not it is a Christmas film. You may have had this argument with friends, family or random people on Twitter. Ask Bruce Willis and he’ll say it is not. Ask venues like the Prince Charles Cinema in London who regularly screen Die Hard at Christmas and they’ll say it is.
Why is there this debate? Why do some viewers count Die Hard as a Christmas film alongside the various adaptations of A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life, while for others it may be an enjoyable action film that just happens to be set at Christmas? People’s reasons are their own, but I suggest that the debate over Die Hard’s seasonal status goes to the heart of what constitutes a Christmas film, and in considering the criteria, we can get a more rounded understanding of the concept as a whole.
Was Die Hard a Christmas release? Not at all – the film’s US release on 20 July 1988 placed it in a summer blockbuster slot. Back in the days before world release, other countries had to wait – the UK didn’t get to enjoy Die Hard until February 1989. However, does a Christmas film need a December release?
The original Miracle on 34th Street was released in June 1947, and while It’s A Wonderful Life premiered in the week before Christmas in 1946, it did not begin showing in cinemas across America until January 1947. Even the 2009 version of A Christmas Carol, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jim Carrey, was released in November. Furthermore, consider films that are released at Christmas: all three instalments of The Lord of the Rings, Titanic and Avatar took advantage of holiday audiences, but I am yet to come across discussions about those being Christmas films. Therefore, the time of release is a dubious criterion for a Christmas film.
Perhaps the easiest criteria for determining ‘a Christmas film’ is whether the film’s narrative is set at Christmas. Arguably, that makes any film set at Christmas a Christmas film, including Batman Returns, Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys (thanks, Shane Black). There is a case to be made for all of these being Christmas films. Batman Returns, for instance, gave Tim Burton and his design team the opportunity to decorate Gotham City as a gothic winter wonderland. But while these films may emphasise Christmas décor, are they interested in Christmas beyond that? Is the contest between Batman, the Penguin and Catwoman related to the time of year? Christmas cheer remains largely in the background of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3, and I had to look up whether The Nice Guys even takes place at Christmas.
If, however, we delineate between films set at Christmas and ‘Christmas films’, we can do so by asking what does it mean for a film to be about Christmas? Like movies, Christmas means different things to different people. But if we consider Christmas specifically within the context of popular Hollywood cinema, common themes do appear: family, the home, wealth, consumption, redemption, reconciliation and that wonderfully vague and therefore widely applicable phrase, ‘the true meaning of Christmas.’ There is often a visual motif of snow, or something snowlike, and Christmas can be the reason that the story takes place. Die Hard includes all of these themes.
The story takes place because John McClane (Willis) is visiting his family in Los Angeles, and meets his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) at a Christmas party. We briefly see the McClane residence, presented as a home that Holly and John wish to return to, a home threatened by the loathsome reporter Dick Thornberg (William Atherton). Wealth and consumption are prominent in the opulence of Nakatomi Plaza, especially the various treasures locked in the vault; in the coke-snorting executive Ellis (Hart Bochner) and in another item that I will return to. Redemption is as central to John’s character arc as that of Ebenezer Scrooge, as he needs to become worthy of Holly, partly by saving her life and that of the other hostages, but also by realising that he was wrong in not supporting her. John and Holly’s reconciliation is the film’s structural logic as the internal conflict (the marriage) and the external conflict (the hostage situation) are resolved. That’s a lot of boxes ticked.
Perhaps most importantly, however, Die Hard has its own version of ‘the true meaning of Christmas’: emotional wealth over material products. This is best demonstrated at the climax of the film when Hans Gruber (Rickman) crashes through a window still gripping Holly by the wrist, and John saves her by unclasping Holly’s Rolex watch, a symbol of wealth and consumption. With the release of the watch, Holly is also released from the malevolent grip of Hans, a self-proclaimed ‘exceptional thief’. This encapsulates the conceit of emotional and familial connections over material wealth. The Christmas setting, Christmas party and the valorisation of family over consumption, all serve to emphasise that the point of the film is a family reunion at Christmas (a reunion probably a lot less painful than many others). Oh, and in case you need reminding, as the angel on the tree, the heroine of the film is called Holly.
It may be that Die Hard is an unintentional Christmas film, but with all that content, not to mention its widespread adoption within Christmas traditions, it clearly has become a Christmas film for many who enjoy it that way. Yippie-ki-yay, Merry Christmas!
Dr Vincent M. Gaine is a film scholar and critic, researching globalisation, liminality and identity politics in film. His reviews can be found at vincentmgaine.wordpress.com as well as thecriticalcritics.com/author/vmgaine and snakebitereviews.weebly.com. He also appears on the podcasts the Constant Reader and Invasion of the Pody People.