It’s the source of endless debate – is the seminal action film count as Christmas film canon? Here, we talk to people who made it and film critics to get some answers
What makes Christmas? People usually say things like ‘getting way too pissed’, ‘crippling yourself with debt from buying useless shit’, ‘arguing with your family’ and ‘eating so much you want to die’, which really, when you think about it, are things that could apply to any time of year. Really, Christmas is just life, but to more excess, with more lights, and more jingle bell sound effects kind of following you around like a festive version of tinnitus.
Which is an attitude that is quite pertinent to the debate that I am about to get into forthwith: is Die Hard objectively a Christmas film, or what? Because look, if a fat guy like ‘Santa Claus’ can insidiously creep into people’s houses and give their children gifts while knicking their booze and carrots, and that be accepted as Christmassy, then why can’t a German terrorist being dropped to his death in slow motion from the top floor of a skyscraper by a policeman who, when you think about it is disconcertingly OK with savagely killing multiple people, also be accepted as Christmassy? Subjectively, there’s very little difference between the two, so we’re here to decide this once and for all, with straight facts (forget this month’s YouGov poll on the topic).
Just to recap for those who haven’t seen the first Die Hard film, the plot focuses on a surly NYPD detective known as John McClane (played by Bruce Willis), who is meeting his wife (Bonnie Bedelia) in LA at the Nakatomi Plaza, ON CHRISTMAS EVE (remember that part because it’s going to be important later). He then unfortunately bumps into Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) who is in the middle of attempting a multi-million dollar heist at said plaza, and all sorts of hijinks ensue as a result, ON CHRISTMAS EVE.
“The Christmas setting is in the source novel, Nothing Lasts Forever, by Roderick Thorpe,” Die Hard’s original screenwriter Steven de Souza, tells me, “One of our producers, Joel Silver, had made Lethal Weapon the previous year, which was also set during the holiday, and he had decided he liked all his movies to take place at Christmas, as they would then very likely be played on television every December and we would all get residual cheques. Obviously, he was right!”
“He had decided he liked all his movies to take place at Christmas, as they would then very likely be played on television every December and we would all get residual cheques. Obviously, he was right!” – Steven de Souza, Die Hard screenwriter
But even though the source material dictated that the film be set at Christmas Eve, did its director, John McTiernan, really intend from the get go for the film to be a Christmas film, akin to miracle on Miracle On 34th Street, and not just a film that features Christmas, like Gremlins, Rocky or the aforementioned Lethal Weapon?
“He didn’t consciously make it a Christmas movie, but he made sure to weave certain elements of it into the tapestry of the film,” explains Larry Taylor, author of John McTiernan: Rise and Fall of An Action Movie Icon’. “It would keep the holiday season right behind the action, and it would help alleviate some of the stress of the intense action.”
And fair play to McTiernan, because when John McClane drops a corpse from multiple stories onto the bonnet of LAPD Sergeant Al Powell’s (Reginald VelJohnson) police car, smashing it to a bloody pulp in the process, it really helps alleviate the stress that just moments before Powell is singing along to ‘Let It Snow’, and that straight afterwards McClane festively quips, “Welcome to the party, pal.”
“McTiernan did want to emphasize the iconography of Christmas, so he and (Director of Photography) Jan de Bont made sure to capture background lights, small Christmas trees in the 9-1-1 control room, and the Christmas packaging tape which became key in the film’s climax,” continues Larry, “More importantly for McTiernan, he wanted the characters and the music to carry the Yuletide tone through. He made sure composer Michael Kamen sprinkled jingling bells and brief hints of Christmas songs within his tense score. It’s all a way for him to make Christmas the canvas for his action movie.”
“While of course in the script I made many references to the holiday season, it wasn’t until I set foot on the set and saw the giant Christmas tree and all the decorations in the office building locations that it struck me how ‘Christmassy’ the film was, even when no one was actively mentioning it.” adds Steven.
OK, so it’s clear from the people who actually made the film that it was meant to be a bit Christmassy, if nothing else just to take your mind off the multiple dead bodies flying about the place. And you can savour the Christmas spirit when Hans Gruber finds his compatriot’s dead body with a novelty Santa hat on, and reads aloud a message, written in said dead compatriot’s blood, that tells him ‘Now I have a machine gun...Ho...Ho...Ho.
But what do the critics think? The film undoubtedly has festive elements running throughout, but does that make it objectively, scientifically, a Christmas film? In the same way we can say climate change is objectively real, can we without reasonable doubt say Die Hard is Christmas film canon?
“No. It's not a Christmas film,” says film critic Toby Earle, resoundingly. “This film occupies one of my favourite sub-genres: films which happen to be set at Christmas but aren’t Christmas films.” he adds.
But the experts disagree on this.
“It's set at Christmas and also because it's always on ITV2 on Christmas Day,” counters fellow film critic Simran Hans. “And the Prince Charles Cinema in London always screen it as part of their Christmas programme!”
Both great points, so let’s dig a little deeper. Surely there must be an objective formula for a Christmas film, one that can make it universally accepted as such, via empirical evidence? What makes a Christmas film, really?
“Whack an elf in and boom, you're on,” Toby tells me, “Chuck a bunch of awful people around a dinner table with a hideous turkey catastrophe, wallop.”
“If a film is set at Christmas, it is a Christmas film. Do people care enough about the sanctity of ‘Christmas films’ that they actually object to the idea of Die Hard being classified as one?” – Simran Hans, film critic
But Simran has other, more blunt ideas: “If a film is set at Christmas, it is a Christmas film.” she says. “Do people care enough about the sanctity of ‘Christmas films’ that they actually object to the idea of Die Hard being classified as one? The same people probably believe in the importance of ‘Christmas spirit’, when we all know the holiday is a celebration of capitalist ephemera.”
Straight to the point from Simran there, and if I’m honest, it’s an opinion I’m inclined to agree with. Although I do also agree with Toby’s idea that whether a film is objectively a Christmas film or not is in some part dependent on “when it was first viewed - if that first time is around Christmas, then a pattern becomes established”. Because if Christmas is about one thing above all else, it’s about tradition, from what you eat, drink, do and feel, Christmas relies on a sense of shared ritual, of shared bonding.
And if watching a guy say ‘Yippee Ki Yay motherfucker’ after killing multiple people with a machine gun is one of those rituals that initiates said shared bonding, then I’m inclined to say that Die Hard is actually, objectively, a Christmas film. Plus it’s set on CHRISTMAS EVE for fuck’s sake, what more do you want? Die Hard is a Christmas film.