Why Die Hard is as Much of a Christmas Movie as It’s a Wonderful Life
Christmas season is upon us and with it comes the endless posts about people gathering around the Netflix fireplace to indulge in their favorite Christmas cinematic traditions. The sounds of “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” and the screams of Kevin McAllister will emanate from houses across America. This of course also results in the inevitable and endless debates of what is and isn’t a Christmas movie.
Film bros will come out of the woodwork celebrating the chance to watch their favorite Christmas movie, Die Hard, and the rest of the world will roll their collective eyes in ire. But why? “It’s not a Christmas Movie!” they’ll say, “You just want an excuse to watch an action movie and avoid people on Christmas Eve!” As valid as that might be, the vitriol is completely unwarranted. As annoying as film bros can be, it’s not the movie’s fault!
The most pervasive cinematic debate we have every year is always Die Hard’s place in the Christmas Cinematic Canon. Is John McClane’s wild romp killing robbers posing as terrorists worthy of being stacked up with the likes of Miracle on 34th Street and A Christmas Story? Yes, it does. We’re settling this argument once and for all through the simplest of logic: If Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie, then neither is It’s a Wonderful Life.
The base requirement for any movie to qualify as a Christmas movie is that it at least takes place on or around Christmas. Under those stipulations, a lot of films fit that criteria, from Little Women to Iron Man 3. However, it’s what those films do with their Yuletide setting that determines their place in the Christmas Cinema Pantheon. Both Die Hard and It’s A Wonderful Life take place on Christmas Eve, but one takes full advantage of that setting than the other.
Die Hard manages to make better use of its Christmas setting for a number of reasons. It’s the entire reason for John McClane to travel from New York to Los Angeles: to see his estranged wife and kids for the holidays. It also explains away why all the employees of the Nakatomi Corporation would be in one place to be conveniently held hostage due to their Christmas party. The context of the holiday makes perfect sense in the world of Die Hard and helps enhance the film’s overall narrative. It’s a Wonderful Life on the other hand, doesn’t utilize its setting nearly as well and could’ve easily have taken place on New Year’s Eve as it could’ve on Christmas Eve.
In It’s a Wonderful Life, the now-iconic Christmas Eve setting of the film doesn’t start until an hour and sixteen minutes into the movie, about 58% of its 130-minute runtime. It spends most of its time going over the entire life of George Bailey only to make a hard left by becoming a proto-Twilight Zone episode in the last forty minutes. Die Hard, meanwhile, dedicates its entire runtime to Christmas Eve and makes better use of Christmas themes and imagery. From “Now I Have a Machine Gun, Ho, Ho, Ho,” to the tape on John’s back, Die Hard never lets you forget what day it is and what that means to its overall story.
Die Hard and It’s A Wonderful Life may be two vastly different films in terms of plot, but they share a lot of similar thematic threads found through many Christmas classics. From the dangers of greed, the power of redemption, and the importance of the individual, both films explore these deeply human ideals and evoke the spirit of the holiday season. Both George Bailey and John McClane experience a spiritual rebirth in their stories, but one of them happens to achieve that through a much more human way.
George Bailey and John McClane are more similar to one another than one would suspect. Both are intuitive, altruistic, and affable as well as being obstinate, prone to anger, and skeptical. George Bailey is a man who is broken down by the cruel nature of fate, keeping him from ever achieving his personal dreams because of his own obligations to the citizens of Bedford Falls. This results in him having a life that he has grown to resent as unfair and that his life was in fact meaningless. John McClane is a man who has floated around with this sense of self-importance and that his work is more important than the people he cares about.
Both men are opposite sides of the same coin as while they have altruistic tendencies, they are a lot more selfish than either would care to admit. The result is two stories of two men learning the same lesson: to appreciate what they have and make changes to reflect as such. That said, one learns that lesson on their own while the other needs literal divine intervention in order to reach that conclusion.
John McClane’s development through Die Hard offers a much more human and nuanced character arc than George Bailey because it is something he realizes for himself. During his rough night through Nakatomi Plaza in an effort to survive and save the woman he cares about offers him a chance to really examine his own selfish behavior and seeks to correct it. At the start of the film, he is resentful of his wife’s success and their moment together before Hans Gruber and his goons take over is one of bitterness and contention. But as he faces the likelihood of death, he realizes his own faults and asks to make sure Holly knows it:
Look — I’m getting a bad feeling up here — I’d like you to do something for me. Look up my wife — don’t ask how, you’ll know by then — and tell her — tell her — I’ve been a jerk. When things panned out for her, I should’ve been behind her all the way — We had something great going until I screwed it up — She was the best thing that ever happened to a bum like me. She’s heard me say I love you a thousand times, but she never got to hear this — honey — I’m sorry. — John McClane, Die Hard
Here is a man who, while faced with a lot of other things on his mind, is drawn to the harm that he has caused to others and pledges to do better. That’s the kind of change that is just as honest and tear-inducing as George Bailey embracing Mary at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.
It’s also worth noting another major difference between the two films is their treatment of women. It’s a Wonderful Life presents a fairly idyllic albeit slightly sexist view of George Bailey’s devoted wife Mary. Mary’s entire character is essentially boiled down to the fact that she loves George unconditionally. Her love and dedication is so strong, that there are several fan theories that she’s the root of all the misfortune in George’s life. Her seemingly innocent wish causes more trouble than she ever could’ve anticipated just so she could keep one man around.
Holly Gennaro (what a festive name) is a high-level executive on the fast track to becoming one of the most valuable and powerful members of the worldwide Nakatomi Corporation. She got to that point by being a savvy, no-nonsense businesswoman who doesn’t let any man stand in the way of her ambition, least of all her estranged husband. She chose her career at the risk of her own marriage in order to establish her own independence. She moved away from a partner who didn’t understand her goals and blames their marital issues on her job instead of on himself. “My job and my title and my salary did nothing to our marriage except change your idea of what it should be,” she tells John as she tries to hammer in her husband’s head all she wants is his love and support.
These are two entirely different women separated by about forty years of thinking and political action regarding the rights of women. Mary represents an older guard of women, a dutiful and loving wife, while Holly is a career woman who can balance her personal and professional lives with relative ease. She also maintains her composure throughout the film, never afraid to clap back at the men who have a gun in her face. Holly and Mary both love their husbands despite their lack of appreciation for what they bring to the table, but Holly is someone who is able to have a life without John, whereas Mary without George is a lonely spinster librarian. As if that was a fate worse than death.
One of the core arguments against Die Hard not being a Christmas movie is that it came out in July of 1988, which is the standard for a big action blockbuster while It’s a Wonderful Life was released in December of 1946, just in time for Christmas. Argument settled, right? Wrong.
In general, movies centered on or about Christmas never come out on Christmas. Why? Because it doesn’t make sense business-wise. Why would studios release a holiday film on the day of said holiday only to have it be instantly irrelevant the next day? There’s a specific window for holiday movies to have their time in the sun before they melt away like yesterday’s snowmen.
The traditional window for holiday films to hit theaters and streaming services is November. The Yuletide holiday season starts essentially on November 1st. As such, the real die-hard Christmas fans start to deck their halls and get their jollies over the course of the next two months, getting it all out of their system by New Year’s Eve. So studios need to capitalize on that window as best they can and releasing a holiday movie on the 25th to only have it work for a measly week is not conducive.
The movies that do come out on Christmas Day vary from year to year. They can range from Quentin Tarantino films like Django Unchained or The Hateful Eight to musical flops like Cats. Would you consider Cats a Christmas movie? Of course you wouldn’t. On average though a lot of the films of note that come out on Christmas Day are the last round of Oscar contenders. It’s the final push before the holiday season makes way for awards season.
It’s a Wonderful Life was released in December of 1946 for this exact reason. It was rushed to theaters in order to qualify for the Academy Awards. It was a move that completely ended up killing its chances. It was trounced at the Academy Awards by the much more relevant (and some would argue better) classic The Best Years of Our Lives. If they had just waited another year, It’s A Wonderful Life would’ve had the Best Picture Oscar in the bag. The movie wasn’t even released wide until January anyway. Not exactly Christmas season.
Besides, release dates don’t really mean much of anything. A classic Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street, was released in the middle of June. A less conventional, but nonetheless beloved Christmas film, Gremlins, was also released in the summer. The trick to what determines a Christmas movie is not something release dates alone can determine and rarely do. In fact, both films were not considered instant classics upon their initial releases and their growth in influence is more similar thanks to the advent of two important shifts in distribution.
It’s a Wonderful Life’s success didn’t come until much later in its life. It opened to mixed reviews, poor box office performance, it nearly ruined Frank Capra’s career. It shut down his burgeoning independent studio, Liberty Pictures, before it had a chance to really lift off the ground. It wasn’t until the rights lapsed in the late 1970s that the film found a new and ardent following through television syndication. It was a free movie for local stations to toss on during the slow season for content and by sheer force of will made it into a classic.
Die Hard also was met with mixed critical reviews, but became a much more financially successful film with a greater and more immediate influence. It revitalized an entire genre and helped save its studio, 20th Century Fox. Its post-release success was also due to the burgeoning home video and rental market. Die Hard may fall into a different genre and feature more deaths (at least permanent ones) than It’s A Wonderful Life, but its status as a Christmas movie is just as legitimate by going through the same steps.
Die Hard has really gotten a lot of ire from Christmas Cinema purists insisting an action movie can’t also be a Christmas movie. All the Die Hard fans want its status as a classic recognized without people turning their noses up at the idea. Is it really so bad that they like something so much and that everyone is so adamant on bringing them down? Why does this movie get such flak while other movies that are just as Christmas centric (and sometimes less so) like It’s a Wonderful Life get to skirt past the red and green velvet ropes into the Christmas Canon?
You can watch whatever the hell you want for any holiday for any reason. You want to watch Lady Bird every Thanksgiving? Knock yourself out. Want an excuse to watch every Harry Potter movie on Christmas even though only one scene per movie happens on Christmas? Whatever. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers on Arbor Day? I appreciate your creativity. It isn’t just about the movie, it’s about cozying up to something familiar, that brings you to a happy place and reminds you what you love about the holidays and cinema.
Die Hard is just as much a Christmas movie as It’s Wonderful Life by using its Christmas setting in an effective way that It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t. Both films manage to tackle similar thematic threads and have their characters learn the same lessons, though in vastly different, but nonetheless compelling ways. Their status and influence as Christmas movies have both grown thanks to the advent of television and home video to bring these stories to a vast set of fans who have found immense pleasure and nostalgia from seeing these films play out again and again.
Whether you gather with your family around George Bailey, or John McClane, or Ralphie, or the Griswolds, it’s nice as long as you’re all together. The holidays aren’t about dictating what you should or should not be watching. It’s about being with the people you care about and appreciating what you have. It’s the kind of lesson George Bailey or John McClane have gone to hell and back to impart on us. So enjoy your time watching your favorite traditions this year. Just don’t be an asshole about it.