Die Hard (1988)
Director: John McTiernan
Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson.
Plot: When terrorists hijack a Christmas party at the Nakatomi plaza in attempt to steal a large some of money, only New York cop, John McClane is able to stop them.
Now that it’s December it’s deemed socially acceptable to start listening to Christmas music and start watching Christmas movies, but what makes a Christmas film exactly? It seems simple enough, as long as you have Santa Claus with a bit of snow and Christmas spirit thrown in, you can’t really go wrong. Some of the obvious Christmas films that come to mind are: Miracle on 34th Street, Elf, The Grinch and even Home Alone; but there are some films that are still up for debate, with 1988’s Die Hard being the biggest. Now, there’s a fifty percent chance that after reading that you’re probably tempted to report me for crimes against humanity for suggesting such a thing, but there’s also a fifty percent chance you’ll be delighted to discover that you may not be alone after all. For this article, I will take some of the biggest and most common codes and conventions of Christmas films and see if/how they are implemented in Die Hard, then I will answer the biggest Christmas movie debate of the century; is Die Hard a Christmas film?
Die Hard is set in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, where New York police office John McClane (Willis) has ventured out to spend Christmas with his wife and children in order to form a resolution in regards to their long-distance relationship. Whilst attending his Wife’s work’s Christmas party, the building is taken over by terrorists and everyone in the building, apart from McClane, is held hostage. After the terrorists initially prevent any police intervention, McClane must find a way to alert the authorities, save his wife Holly (Bedelia) and the rest of the hostages, and foil the terrorists’ plan. Other than being set on Christmas eve, it doesn’t seem to have too much of a holiday feel, but let me continue…
What’s the most obvious theme in a Christmas film? Probably Christmas itself. Now that idea can come across rather vague as a film’s plot could be directly based around typical Christmas stories, or it could just simply take place during Christmas. One thing that can be guaranteed however, is that if it’s released during December and the plot is somewhat related to Christmas, it’s usually a sign that the film is trying to be festive. Die Hard actually takes place on Christmas Eve and it’s about a father wanting to reconcile with his wife and celebrate Christmas with his family. In this regard it seems festive on the surface. After all, Christmas is all about spending time with loved ones, right? This is a crucial plot point that is so often completely swept under the carpet due to the remainder of the film which is filled with swearing and graphic violence, but it remains true. As for the film’s release… the UK got it in February, while the US got it in summer blockbuster season (the middle of July); not exactly the ideal time to release a prototypical Christmas film. However, it was screened at the London film festival at the end of November, and Argentina and Portugal released the film on the 15th and 16th of December respectfully. So, while the film’s release date doesn’t really suggest a particularly festive intention, the film’s ideology definitely does; it takes place during Christmas and to an extent promotes the values of it.
What about a Christmas song? Every Christmas film is littered with festive music, whether it’s the likes Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin a Christmas soundtrack is instantly recognisable and really helps give a film a Christmas ambiance. When you think of Die Hard, you don’t really associate it with any Christmas music, but in truth it’s everywhere in the film. The first song comes on during John McClane’s limo journey where the hero of the piece is subjected to listening to Run-D.M.C.’s ‘Christmas in Hollis’. In fact, McClane asks: “You got any Christmas music?” To which Argyle responds: “This is Christmas music!” Naturally, due to the song’s genre, it isn’t instantly recognised as being festive, but whichever way you look at it, it is a Christmas song. Secondly, as minor as it may be, John McClane can be heard whistling ‘Jingle Bells’ whilst walking through the Nakatomi plaza and, thirdly, ‘Let it Snow’ by Vaughn Monroe is played during the end credits. It’s also worth mentioning that parts of ‘Winter Wonderland’ by Felix Bernard and Richard B. Smith was implemented and blended in with the film’s main soundtrack to maintain a festive consistency throughout the film. The film’s composer Michael Kamen also uses the sound of sleigh bells at the start of the film during the airport scene. Whilst the sound of sleigh bells is traditionally festive, in this instance they are composed in a menacing way to juxtapose the joyful, festive season with a sense of danger and dread.
So, Die Hard is set during Christmas, it promotes Christmas values and it has an abundant Christmas soundtrack; but what else does it need to really make it a Christmas film? Is it in a Christmas environment? Well, the answer to the second question is that the film is set in Los Angeles on Christmas eve, which doesn’t necessarily have a festive atmosphere, but the warm climate of the West Coast explains the lack of snow, a major factor in many Christmas films. Despite this, the building is smothered in Christmas decorations and during the end scene, the explosion of the building produces a snow-like confetti of money, which acts as a substitute for snow. Just for good measure the film even throws in a number of Christmas references and the majority of characters acknowledge the festive season. Finally, and perhaps this is a ridiculous personal theory of mine, John McClane is a representation of Santa Claus. Like Santa, he arrives on Christmas Eve via a flying carriage wielding gifts (or in this case via an aeroplane and wielding a giant teddy bear), and while he doesn’t wear a red and white suit or a large white beard, by the end of the film he’s in a white vest and is covered in blood, which of course, is red. As well as being an expert in abseiling down a building, as opposed to going down the chimney, at the end of everything, he manages to save Mrs Claus – Holly McClane – and save Christmas.
After looking at all the themes and ideas, I think it’s clear that this iconic member of the action movie genre is a Christmas film, and that it’s really surprising that a large percentage of people still dismiss it as so. Perhaps it’s the summer release and the violent nature of the film that are the contributing factors? After all, it’s fair to understand that people don’t want to associate Christmas with terrorism and violence, but rather a light-hearted film with a positive message. The film’s violent and graphic nature is perhaps enough to take away all of the other factors that arguably make it a Christmas film, but Die Hard is simply a slightly unconventional Christmas film that deviated from the typical idea of what they should be. Therefore, despite the violence, I still believe Die Hard carries enough justification to be classed as a Christmas film; it’s bold, exciting and emits a strong Christmas vibe without being too corny. Perhaps it’s a Christmas film for those not so big on Christmas.