On the face of it, the festive classic It’s A Wonderful Life couldn’t be more different to action masterpiece Die Hard. The former has become an enduring part of the holiday season in the US and UK, while internet debate still rages about whether Die Hard is actually a Christmas movie at all.
These days we regard the Christmas Movie as a genre all of its own, but it is a relatively new invention. Check out any list of top Christmas films, and almost every popular choice – i.e. movies modern audiences still watch today – was made after World War II.
It's a Wonderful Life / Die HardDirected by: Frank Capra / John McTiernan
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Henry Travers
Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia
It’s a Wonderful Life stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a nice guy who finds himself standing on a bridge on Christmas Eve, contemplating suicide. He has sacrificed his dreams for the good of his family, friends and community, but circumstances have led him to the brink of ruin. Thankfully, the heavens are listening to the prayers of his loved ones and dispatch an angel, Clarence (Henry Travers) to show George that he really has a wonderful life. Clarence shows George what life would be like if he was never born, and what a positive impact he has had on everyone around him.
It sounds twee, and over-familiarity has cast it as the quintessential feel good Christmas classic. The film’s goodwill, reassuring message (“no man is a failure who has friends”) and jubilant ending makes it easy to forget that the joyous sense of catharsis would be impossible without its dark heart – this is a movie about a man ready to kill himself, and Clarence’s vision of a sans-George world is nightmarish in tone.
Most popular Christmas movies follow one of two broad plotlines – a) a character must experience a change of heart (Scrooged, Elf, Bad Santa) or b) a character must overcome a challenge, otherwise Christmas is off (Home Alone, Gremlins, Jingle All the Way). It’s a Wonderful Life is in the former category, basically a reworking of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Bailey is the anti-Scrooge, endlessly self-sacrificing but still needing supernatural intervention to save his soul, with Clarence acting as the three ghosts rolled into one.
Christmas Day is the absolute deadline for both plots, and the reward is usually a wonderful reunion with family and friends and a refreshed view on life – the Christmas spirit at work!
Die Hard stars Bruce Willis as John McLane, the streetwise New York cop caught up in a deadly hostage situation while visiting his estranged wife at her LA office. She is attending a swanky Christmas Eve soiree thrown by her boss when archvillain Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) crashes the party with his team of ruthless killers, intent on stealing the contents of the vault. Stranded in the higher reaches of the building barefooted and initially unarmed, McLane must take on the baddies single handedly.
Die Hard is one of the finest action movies ever made, and a huge part of its appeal was the casting of Willis, who was mainly known for the romantic comedy lead in the TV show Moonlighting. The Eighties action scene was dominated by cartoonish, indestructible musclemen like Schwarzenegger and Stallone, and giving an ordinary looking guy the lead was a masterstroke. It feels like McLane is genuinely in peril, and gives the audience someone to root for.
So is Die Hard a Christmas movie, or just an ironic, hipsterish choice of alternative festive viewing? I’m calling it a great Christmas movie, and I think the older it gets, the easier it is to accept it as such. We’re pretty cynical these days, so it’s more acceptable for a Christmas classic to have exploding skyscrapers and a high body count.
Firstly, it has that hard to define “Christmassy” feel that all great Christmas movies have. The sleigh bells on the score help, as does the Santa hat on a freshly murdered terrorist, and the little details – McLane’s wife is called Holly.
More importantly, the McLanes must survive their ordeal and defeat the villains if they’re to see their kids again, and by the end we’re in no doubt that they will give their marriage another chance. Dozens of people have been brutally murdered and millions of dollars of high-end real estate is in flames, but hey – modern times, and the Christmas Spirit still works!
Cordially inviting you to see both movies at The Immigrant (Veveří 57) on Sunday, December 20 at 7 pm.
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