DIE HARD has somehow sneakily joined the ranks of Christmas films. It has been embraced by many with open arms as a modern holiday classic, and defended vigilantly by others for its status as a yuletide treasure. I have long been a fan of the film, but this pivot from adoring DIE HARD at face value to championing the film specifically as a seasonal offering gives me pause. Rather than examining if this is the best Christmas film of all time (a debate that is well populated online), I am much more interested in exploring how DIE HARD functions within the subgenre. In other words, what is it that makes DIE HARD a Christmas movie?
I am not claiming to be an expert on all Christmas movies, but I am a huge fan of them. But what makes a movie a Christmas movie? I have always operated under the Potter Stewart adapted definition of Christmas films: “I know it when I see it.” When it comes to approaching a definition for Christmas films, this clouded designation proves problematic. We can, however, still examine what we do know to be true.
Genre is irrelevant for defining Christmas movies. DIE HARD is above all else, an action film, but this does not mean it cannot also be categorized as a Christmas film. Just as NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION is a comedy, WHITE CHRISTMAS is a musical, and GREMLINS is a horror film, all of these are also Christmas films. The genres of these films do not exclude them from this subgenre.
DIE HARD takes place during Christmas. Most specifically, it takes place during a Christmas party at the Nakatomi corporate offices. I do not think simply having a film take place during Christmas is the sole qualifier for becoming a Christmas film, however I do think it is a requirement to be considered. TRADING PLACES takes place from Christmas to New Year’s Day, and similarly LETHAL WEAPON includes a confrontation in a Christmas tree lot, but neither is widely considered a Christmas film. Other warm weather Christmas films, such as MIXED NUTS (the tragically ignored Nora Ephron Christmas comedy), show that the time of year, and not necessarily snowfall, is sufficient for the environment of Christmas.
DIE HARD’s soundtrack features a good amount of Christmas music. Though many of the action sequences feature Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the film’s very first encounter with music sets the tone for the rest of the film. Argyle, John McClane’s limo driver, cranks up Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” as they leave the airport. By establishing the modern holiday tone, the audience is told the film will be a Christmas film, but not in the traditional sense. Much like Run DMC appropriated Christmas traditions and made them their own, DIE HARD also sets out to create a new holiday tradition, but on its own terms.
Rather than continue with semantics, I think the definition of a Christmas movie may lie thematically with the transformative power of Christmas. All of the great Christmas stories feature a character changing, for the better, due specifically to the magic of Christmas. Often the change is made to bring a family together, but this is not a requirement.
Just as Ebenezer Scrooge in A CHRISTMAS CAROL and Francis Xavier Cross in SCROOGED realize that their priorities are skewed, John McClane and his estranged wife, Holly, too, realize they have their lives out of focus before finding their Christmas miracle. While the McClane’s Christmas transformation is due in part to the sophisticated German band of terrorist thieves, led by the talented super villain Hans Gruber, I do think he is no more traumatizing than Dickens’s three ghosts. Being visited by ghosts and scolded for your life choices would be extremely upsetting for anyone, especially so for Victorian era misers and covetous television executives. And, though, the explicit purpose of the ghosts’ visits was to scare the Scrooges into changing their ways, the purely selfish nature of Gruber’s crimes called to light the McClane’s selfishness. If Holly had ripped their family apart by moving John’s children three thousand miles away and he in turn had refused to follow, how different are they than Gruber (Note: they are, in fact, very different than Gruber, but the 1980s criticism of materialism is still there).
Also, John would not have travelled out to California were it not for Christmas. His trip was due to the holiday, and he would not have been in the Nakatomi were it not for their Christmas party. Herein lays the Christmas miracle. It is not always supernatural or other-worldly, sometimes the magic of Christmas is just having the right people, in the right places, at the right time.
In the end, the McClane family is once again brought back together. John somehow emerges simultaneously bloodied and vindicated. Gruber has been given the ultimate punishment for his greed. And keeping with the magic of the season, Argyle arrives just in time to drive the McClanes home. Christmas is saved, and has once again proven itself as a great transformative power.