This ultimately ended up as a review on the Internet Movie Database . Originally it was a piece for Miscellany. Miscellany is a TCD magazine with a long history. For one year, 1999/2000, it was a joint UCD/TCD magazine. The experiment was involving the UCD Philosophy Society in funding and distributing and editing the mag. It didn’t last.
This is a sort of piece that sees a certain conceit stretched beyond breaking point. Die Hard is a World War II movie in the way every action movie is. In this age where all onscreen heroism is superheroism, Die Hard seems rather quaint.
A lot of my late 90s/early 00s writing on films ended up on IMDB. I’ll mine this source as time goes by. Quite a few of these were from a UCD University Observer feature called 60s 70s 80s featuring a book, album and film, one from each decade. I was particular about including a book each time.
As Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika set in motion the events that would lead to the collapse of both the illusion of Soviet power and the Soviet Union, Hollywood, and in particular the makers of contemporary action movies, had a problem. The Russians (never mind the fact that the Soviets weren’t all Russians) were good villains, all sinister accents and sinister brooding looks. For decades they had been led by dour Commies humourlessly taking the salute on May Day. But along came charismatic old Gorby and suddenly the Ruskies were warm, fuzzy huggable allies trying to make a better world. South African apartheid-mongers, South American drug barons and Arab-world terrorists all stood in for the sinister Soviets – but things weren’t the same.
John McTiernan’s 1988 `Die Hard’ went back to the definitive screen villains – German Nazis. Of course, films featuring Teutonic villainy had been made since World War II, but most of these were marred somewhat by the difficulty of making them contemporary, and the fact that most people know who won World War II. `Die Hard’ can be seen as a typical World War II movie.
For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, here’s a brief synopsis: Bruce Willis plays John McClane, a New York cop who is in Los Angeles to go to a Christmas party with his estranged wife. An unspecified group of German terrorists, led by Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman, the man who would later impersonate Eamon de Valera as a pantomime sniveling whinger in Michael Collins) takes over the building where his wife works and holds her and 30 workmates hostage. Willis is left alone in the building and the film essentially is made up of McClane wearing a vest and foiling the terrorists by increasingly spectacular means. See it – even if you make a point of loathing that sort of thing, it is a classic example of what Hitchcock meant by `pure cinema’ – a series of brilliant sequences held together by a largely irrelevant `McGuffin’ or plot.
Die Hard’s villains are loosely defined German terrorists. Ultimately their motivation is financial, but that doesn’t really matter – they fit in as ruthless, hyperefficient Aryan ubermenschen sneering at American culture as decadent – in short, the stereotypical Hollywood Nazi. They even have a Oriental gentleman in their party – echoes of the Axis (the benevolent owner of the building is Japanese, who makes a jocular reference to Pearl Harbor) who at one stage unconsciously underlines American pop culture’s supremacy by surreptitiously grabbing a Mars bar just before another violent showdown.
The starkest illustration of the clash of cultures is when Hans Gruber engages McClane with the celebrated dialogue:
Hans Gruber: You know my name but who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne? Rambo? Marshall Dillon? Detective John McClane: Was always kinda’ partial to Roy Rogers actually. I really dig those sequined shirts.
`Die Hard’ retains the values of the World War II morale booster – multiethnic America’s can-do spirit and resourcefulness trumps sinister German murderousness and cultural snobbery. The GIs of World War II modeled themselves on Bogart and westerns, lusted after Betty Grable, swung to the sounds of Glenn Miller – in short, they were creatures of their dominant pop culture. Even in the tension of the decisive showdown, McClane goes on to trump Gruber again in the pop culture stakes:
Hans Gruber: This time John Wayne does not walk off into the sunset with Grace Kelly.
Detective John McClane: That was Gary Cooper, a**hole
Interestingly, the German the terrorists speak is often grammatically incorrect and meaningless. The German release of the film feature terrorists from `Europe’ and the terrorists Hans and Karl have been renamed Jack and Charlie. In the scene where McClane writes down the names Hans and Karl on his forearm, he says “I’m gonna call you Hans and Karl, just like the two evil giants in the fairy tale.” Later on, he still refers to them as Jack and Charlie.
`Die Hard’ taps into the ideal of resourcefulness and independence; of course these ideals are especially strong in America where the pioneer experience is historically recent and important to American self-image. You could even read the film as an illustration of the individualist Objectivism of Ayn Rand; the lone McClane trumps the teamwork of the Germans despite the ineffectual teamwork of the police and FBI outside the building. The efficiency and technical expertise of the Germans is no match for good ol’ American can-do.
Another interesting aspect of `Die Hard’ is its racial politics. McClane’s first contact outside the building is the black Sergeant Powell. McClane’s relationship to Sergeant Powell is again typical of the buddy films of World War II. They strike up a relationship on CB radio during the crisis, which extends to warm family reminiscences. Powell has a tragic past; one night he accidentally shot a child and since then has moved to desk duties since he can never bring himself shoot a gun again. In the best tradition of the buddy movie, Powell ultimately overcomes his fear to save the day. Yet another example of redemption through violence.
The terrorists are helped by Theo, a black computer whiz, who is counterpoised by Argyle, a guy ensconced in a limo in the underground car park who ultimately stops him making a getaway. Again one can’t help being reminded of the World War II platoon movies where a WASP, a Jew, an Italian kid, an Irish guy, a Native American and a black guy all unite to trump the monotonously Aryan Germans.
World War II was the dominant political and social event of the Twentieth Century. Millions of young men – now elderly – went off to fight, and in many cases witness unimaginable horror, and often killed; and then came back to civilian life. No wonder the themes of World War II are revisited again and again, in surprising locations and in surprising times.