35 years ago today, the greatest Christmas action movie was released
"You throw quite a party!"
Back in the mid 80s, producers wanted to adapt another Roderick Thorp novel and bring it to the silver screen. Originally, the plan was for Frank Sinatra to reprise his role in a film that would eventually be named Die Hard.
Die Hard is based on Thorp's novel Nothing Lasts Forever, which saw retired detective Joe Leland going up against some terrorists in the Klaxon Oil Corporation headquarters, on Christmas Eve.
Sinatra had played Leland in a 1968 movie called The Detective and it was not only one of his best on-screen performances - up there with The Manchurian Candidate and From Here To Eternity - but a big box-office hit. As the original plan was for Joe Leland to be the main character, producers reached out to Ol' Blue Eyes, who was then 71, but were knocked back.
It was hardly a huge surprise that Sinatra would turn down the role, so hard offers were already prepared for two other action stars - Clint Eastwood (57 at the time) and Mel Gibson (31). Both said no, but the Gibson approach shows that producers, and director John McTiernan, were already starting to make changes. Before we look at those, here were the other actors that were either considered or officially approached:
- Arnold Schwarzenegger
- Sylvester Stallone
- James Caan (read the script but complained 'the guy is running away for the first 25 pages')
- Richard Gere
- Burt Reynolds
We would eventually see an active NYPD [New York] detective called John McClane flying to Los Angeles, on Christmas Eve, to try reconcile with his estranged wife, Holly, who was working for the Nakatomi Corporation. The part of the novel where the detective tries, and fails, to save the life of his daughter was also dropped.
The next actor to get offered the role makes sense, now, but was a head-scratcher for many, back in 1988. Bruce Willis was known, back then, as a comedic TV actor. He was part of a hit show called Moonlighting, in which he co-starred with Cybill Shepherd and, due to that success, made his big screen debut [in a substantial role] starring alongside Kim Basinger in Blind Date [24% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes and barely a box-office pulse]. McTiernan was not convinced he had the chops to be a big screen star. He once commented:
"Bruce went and did his television character, and on a big screen it didn’t work. Once the audience could see Bruce, closely and in higher definition, they didn’t like him. They didn’t like the smart-ass thing."
Willis initially felt he would have to turn down the role but when Shepherd announced she was pregnant and there was a Moonlighting shooting delay, the 32-year-old committed to the project. Die Hard had it's leading man and the rest of the cast - Paul Gleason, William Atherton and Bonnie Bedelia included - started to take shape.
Die Hard features one of cinema's best ever bad guys
Once again, with the benefit of cinematic hindsight, it is hard to see the role of German bad guy Hans Gruber being played by anyone other than Alan Rickman.
In his mid 30s and an established theatrical actor in English stage productions, Alan Rickman had never appeared in a feature film before. His biggest acting role, to that date, had been as Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which was a West End and Broadway smash. He missed out on the movie adaptation, Dangerous Liaisons, to John Malkovich but impressed McTiernan and the producers in an audition for the Gruber part.
McTiernan wanted Sam Neill [of Jurassic Park, Dead Calm and Peaky Blinders fame] but the Kiwi was not interested. Rickman also considered turning down the part, reluctant for a big action movie to be his first Hollywood foray, but he eventually signed on. Movie history was about to be made.
While John McClane is the hero of Die Hard, he would be nothing without the perfect, villainous foil of Hans Gruber. Rickman delivered Gruber as an acid-tongued radical who could be velvet and unflappable then flick the switch to cause death and chaos in an instant.
"Alas, your Mr. Takagi did not see it that way... so he won't be joining us, for the rest of his life."
Allied to a wonderful Rickman performance, he assembled a motley crew of henchmen that had tech wizards, martial artists, gun-wielding hit-men and über alles psychos.
Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?
Die Hard was premiered on July 12th 1988 then had a limited release of July 15th across 21 theatres in 13 American cities. That opening burst went down well so it was granted a much wider release on July 22nd.
Appearing in cinemas around the same time as Cocktail, Coming to America and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the movie banked $83 million in its' theatrical run, in the USA, and another $58m world-wide, making it the 10th highest grossing film of 1988 [Rain Man topped that chart on $354m]. Die Hard gained even further momentum through video and DVD sales, and rentals, as well as becoming a beloved cable television favourite. It would, in time, spawn four sequels and rake in well over $2 billion.
The big question remains, though, whether it is a Christmas movie or not.
The fact that it had a July release would take away from whether it was ever intended for a Christmas audience, but the Christmas Eve in L.A theme was crucial to production company 20th Century Fox. Screenwriter Jeb Stuart recalled:
"Lloyd Levin [20th Century] always wanted it to snow. He said, 'I've always wanted to do a movie where it snows in L.A'."
For the 30th anniversary of Die Hard, a new cut was released claiming the movie was 'the greatest Christmas story ever told' and leaned hard into the fact that John McClane was trying to see his wife, to apologise, before the big day. In 2017, YouGov ran a poll in the UK and asked if Die Hard was a Christmas movie - 30% said yes, 52% disagreed while the remaining 18% were undecided.
The following year, at the end of a Comedy Central 'roast', Bruce Willis declared, "Die Hard is not a Christmas movie!"
To me, though, it is.
It may never have been the intention for Die Hard to be one of the Christmas movie staples, but events whipped way beyond the control or influence of those that made it. For a huge cross-section of society, it is not Christmas unless we have seen John McClane wise-crack his way around Nakatomi Plaza and declaring, "Yippie-ki-yay motherf***er!"
Die Hard is a regular on terrestrial TV, especially around Christmas, and available to stream in Ireland and the UK on Disney + and on the likes of Starz, Direct TV and Hulu, in the United States.
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