When you think of Christmas movies Diehard does not necessarily spring to mind; however regardless of this assumption it is really typical of this seasonal sub genre. Smaltz is a word that has been specifically created for your average Christmas movie and its origins can be traced back to Hollywood movies of the 1940’s where the effects of the second world war had left its mark on the new world. The themes of these films were filled with optimism, hope and faith whilst juxtaposed with despair. The final act of all these films followed the basis of the happily ever after theory, with our hero coming through in the end and showing that the world and Christmas was not such a bad thing after all. This was the prototype formula of the typical Hollywood ending, where the audiences demanded optimism and hope for the future.
Two Christmas films from this era emphasize this point clearly. The first, Holiday Inn starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire tells the tale of show business friends caught up in a love tangle. Bing Crosby’s Jim Hardy has fallen on hard times, his business failing and his friend Ted Hanover (Astaire) has run off with his wife. He falls in love with another girl but the fear of being heartbroken resurfaces again when Ted comes back taking an interest in his new girlfriend. In the end he gets to keep the woman he has fallen in love with while Astaire goes back to his other girlfriend. The overtly sentimental “White Christmas” song was sung in this movie by Crosby. With its reference to hoping for a snow filled Christmas, it correlates with the characters hopes and dreams of making it in show business and of love.
The unanimously quintessential Christmas film is It’s a Wonderful Life; a film which is part realism, part fantasy but drowned in the spirit of Christmas. Our hero George Bailey, a small time banker is deep in debt and sees no salvation during the Christmas period so decides that the world would be better off without him. Just when he is about to jump off a bridge an angel saves him, then shows him what his life would be like if he never existed. What follows is a heartwarming example of the human spirit, a validation of the meaning of Christmas and more importantly the manipulation of our emotions.
Home Alone is a more contemporary Christmas movie and concerns the accidental abandonment of a troublesome child who feels that he is unloved by his family during the Christmas period. As he is left home alone while the family goes on their holiday he has to contend with burglars and a scary neighbor, but ultimately longs for his family to come back who he mis believes that he has wished them away. As he is reunited with his family at the end of the movie, he realizes that being with his family during Christmas is what matters most to him.
How does Diehard fit into the spirit of a Christmas movie? Well forget the guns, the explosions and the remarkable stunts for just one moment and look at the bigger picture. It is Christmas Eve; this establishes a setting. The tone is undeniably Christmassy too, from the get go. McClane comes off his flight with a massive teddy bear as a present for his kids. And when the title for the movie slides onto the screen, we hear the sound of jingle bells, although giving us a sense of dread and tension rather than that homely sense of Christmas. The early conversation between Holly and Ellis at the Nakatomi Christmas party accentuates the Christmas setting, though both struggle to define what Christmas is:
“Harry it’s Christmas eve; family, stockings…chestnuts? Rudolph and Frosty. Any of these things ring a bell?”
“Actually, I was thinking more of mulled wine, a nice age brie and a roaring fireplace, you know what I’m saying?”
When Holly is on the phone to her daughter Lucy she responds to her daughter’s pleas that she will see what she and ‘Santa’ can do to bring her daddy home. And when John is in the limo with Argyle he requests Christmas music, although Argyle retorts that the Run DMC music playing, IS Christmas music. The Christmas setting is constantly referenced throughout, from Sergeant Powell humming the ‘let it snow’ tune in the convenience store to Gruber telling Theo that ‘it’s Christmas’, to McClanes’ ‘ho, ho, ho’ message written on a dead henchman, to Christmas duck-tape being used to conceal a gun.
The back story is a little more cynical subverting the smaltz of the standard Christmas film. A husband has stayed in New York and let his head strong wife head out to LA to pursue a white collar career. She has become successful, to the disappointment of her husband. But despite this, both parties are initiating a reunion. The reunion between Holly and John is somewhat awkward, let us not forget that this is a husband and wife who haven’t seen each other for a good while. Holly timidly offers up the spare bedroom for John as a place to stay rather than stay with his retired friend; and this gesture is as much for her kids as it is for herself. But divergence between the two occurs because John has found out not too recently that Holly is being referred to by her maiden name amongst her work colleagues, an act which will have implications for the future (Gruber will fail to identify that Holly is John’s wife); but will mean that husband and wife will part with bad feelings once Gruber’s men hijack the tower.
Christmas is a time for family and friends therefore the true reason why Diehard is a great Christmas movie is because it is essentially about a man facing the difficult task of reuniting with his wife and his family during Christmas on account of being trapped in a skyscraper with a series of heavily armed men. This is also complicated further for our hero because he is trapped in a hostage situation. As he talks to Powell on the radio he asks him to relay a message to his wife if he does not get out of the tower alive. His message is heartwarming; apologizing for what a jerk he has been and that he should have been more supportive, and that she was the best thing that could have ever happened to a “bum like me”. Powell’s response is filled with hope and optimism characteristics intrinsic to the spirit of Christmas. Telling McClane that he can tell her that himself as long as he “watches his ass”.
So for these reasons Diehard is the perfect alternative Christmas movie. Christmas scheduling has picked up on this too with the Prince Charles Cinema screening the Diehard trilogy during the season, and Steve Rose claiming “it’s Bruce Willis’s incidentally Christmassy Die Hard that’s emerging as the new seasonal favourite”. At the end of the movie after a massive explosion that sees endless bits of paper fall from the sky like snow, Argyle comments as he puts the McClanes’ in his limo that “if this is your idea of Christmas, I gotta be there for New Year’s”. The McClanes kiss then Vaughn Monroe’s version of ‘Let it Snow’ kicks in. If that is not Christmas, then I’m not sure what is.