It’s that time of year to squat down to watch a Christmas movie with the family – and to host the annual debate on whether Die Hard actually counts for one.
This debate has now become, in some circles of movie history, such an important question as to the meaning of “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane or whether Han Solo or Greedo first shot in Star Wars. It’s even significant enough to warrant a YouGov poll, which concluded that Die Hard is not a Christmas movie.
The arguments surrounding the 1988 film’s “Christmas” revolve around three themes: creative, commercial and cultural.
The creative argument is based on the intentions of the people involved in the making of the film. As director John McTiernan and screenwriter Steven De Souza have confirmed that Die Hard is a Christmas movie, then the creative case would look very favorable.
Commercial and cultural arguments
The business argument is that Christmas movies come out on Christmas and are generally aimed at family audiences. However, Die Hard was a summer release (July 15, 1988) in the United States and very obviously for adults. However, this argument that a summer release can’t be a Christmas movie doesn’t stand up to even the most superficial examination.
This perennial seasonal Holiday Inn, in which Bing Crosby tweets Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, was also a summer release (August 4, 1942), and no one is claiming it’s not a Christmas movie. Even the remake, White Christmas, was released in mid-October 1954. Proximity to Christmas is therefore not necessarily a criterion for a Christmas movie.
Nine Reasons It’s A Christmas Movie
The most common understanding of a Christmas movie – as Mark Connelly pointed out in the introduction to Christmas in Cinema – is that the Christmas theme and motif is central to the film, like It’s a Wonderful Life. and the many versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
But there is another category of films that take place just around Christmas, a group that includes films such as the mysterious murder The Thin Man and the African mercenary violence festival The Wild Geese. And it is in this category that Die Hard belongs.
Here are nine Christmas patterns that I detected (there are probably more):
- The basic storytelling of Die Hard is a man returning to his family for Christmas.
- His wife’s name is Holly.
- It takes place on Christmas Eve. Not Thanksgiving or July 4th. It could have been fixed any week of the year, but it was not.
- Chief villain Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) explicitly invokes the Christmas spirit: “It’s Christmas, Theo, it’s miracle hour.”
- Gruber is a classic capitalist villain: he’s here to steal money. Much like Old Man Potter does in It’s a Wonderful Life.
- The soundtrack features new and old Christmas tunes: Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis and Frank Sinatra’s interpretation of Let it Snow.
- Santa Claus makes an appearance (in the form of a dead terrorist).
- The movie ends with the limo driver Argyle (De’voreaux White) looking forward to New Year’s Eve.
And the new point, the clincher, perhaps, is that Christmas is a socially invented tradition, and like all invented traditions, it continues to adapt and evolve. Movies don’t need to include religious references or a man in a red suit, Christmas changes every year and as such what constitutes a Christmas movie has grown tremendously.
Our tradition at Chapman is the Ultimate Christmas Eve Action Movie Double Bill: Die Hard and the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. We start with Bond spying on Diana Rigg on the beach around 4 p.m., take a lunch break between movies, and head to Gruber, diving from the 30th floor of the Nakatomi Tower at 9:30 a.m. It’s just in time for the rehearsal for the Christmas dinner episode of The Vicar of Dibley (which I always thought it would be a lot funnier if Dawn French wielded a Heckler & Koch MP5).