Tis’ the season: the halls are decked with boughs of holly, children dream of Santa, and there’s peace and goodwill toward all — unless we’re arguing about whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie.
Yes, that old chestnut, roasting over an open fire: a fun idea that slowly turned into a tired, annual cliché about which people are extraordinarily passionate. It’s also opened the chimney for all manner of turkey-and-booze-fuelled family arguments about contentious Christmas cinema; movies like Lethal Weapon (gunfight at a Christmas tree lot; Mel Gibson finds a new family for the holidays), Batman Returns (Christmas tree ceremony; comment on loneliness during the holidays), Gremlins (anti-consumerist message; Gizmo is a Christmas gift), and even Eyes Wide Shut (director Stanley Kubrick purposely stuffed every scene, except the famous weirdo cult sex party, with Christmas lights, trees and imagery).
Purists will argue that Christmas movies require certain elements, like characters going through a change (though that’s all movies), Christmas iconography or heart-tugging sentimentality. Hallmark has taken over the Christmas movie game by cranking out films at a faster pace than Santa’s elves make toys. They’ve created a formula that has even inspired drinking games where you take a shot if a city slicker is stuck in a small town for the holidays, it starts snowing on Christmas, or the bland main characters fall in love.
But maybe we have more hand than we think in deciding what a Christmas movie is, as individuals, and as a culture.
Die Hard is becoming a Christmas movie in the same way that It’s a Wonderful Life did before it. The latter was never intended to be a holiday flick.
“I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it,” said director Frank Capra. “I just liked the idea.”
Christmas is merely a framing device at the beginning and end of the movie, about a man who decides to take his own life on Christmas Eve and a guardian angel shows him what the world would have been like without him. It takes place over a lifetime and many different seasons. Even when the community pulls together to help George Bailey, there isn’t a specific Christmas message.
The movie tanked upon its release in 1946. Post-war audiences wanted to look forward, not back on their hardships.
It was all but forgotten until the 80s, when a clerical error meant the copyright wasn’t renewed and it went into the public domain. Cable stations threw it on because, hey, free content, and we were hammered with it for years. It became one of the most enduring Christmas movies of all time. We hung that stocking on the mantle together, as a culture.
So, let’s settle this Die Hard question once and for all: it’s a Christmas movie. It takes place at a Christmas party on Christmas Eve. There are lines like, “Now I have a machine gun, ho-ho-ho.” John McClane’s wife’s name is Holly and he gives her a Christmas gift. “Ode to Joy” is a major component of the score.
The studio actually released a Christmas Edition of Die Hard last year, and playwrights in the States have written a stage version called A Very Die Hard Christmas.
The most enlightening evidence is that screenwriter Steven E. de Souza confirmed that it was indeed intended to be Christmas-themed. Director John McTiernan used the holiday to alleviate the intense action, filling the screen with Christmas lights, trees, and bells and other accents in the score. Producer Joel Silver, who also made the maybe-it’s-a-Christmas-movie Lethal Weapon, liked his movies to take place at Christmas so they’d get those sweet, sweet December residuals, paid out to the stakeholders when a piece of entertainment is rerun.
How much more proof do the Grinch-y naysayers need?
Die Hard started as a Christmas movie and It’s a Wonderful Life didn’t, but both are yuletide favourites now, because culture, like everything else, changes over time. Genre and intent don’t matter as much. If it gets you in the mood while you sip a rum and eggnog and trim your tree, then it has the power to become a Christmas movie. You should watch the movies that give you holiday joy, even if it’s one of those horrifyingly formulaic Hallmark movies that are taking over the universe. You decide what a Christmas movie is for you.
Though, if Eyes Wide Shut gets you in the mood, I’m a bit worried for you.
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