On the eve of its 30th Anniversary, Carl takes a retrospective look at Bruce Willis’ all-time Christmas classic Die Hard.
Sorry, Bruce…..You’re wrong!
Summer 1988-The studios rolled out their traditional summer box office juggernauts vying for the audience’s cash. The term ‘Summer Blockbuster’ came into being after Steven Spielberg terrified the world and scared up a huge box office take with Jaws back in 1975. After that summer, it was traditional for big budget blockbusters to hit during May and September. The summer of 1988 was no different. Alien Nation, Arthur 2, Beetlejuice, Big, Coming To America, Twins, Crocodile Dundee II, and Rambo III led the charge.
The smart money was on Crocodile Dundee II and Rambo III to battle for box office supremacy. However, in the midst of all these films, another film hit the box office. Not considered to be a blockbuster around Hollywood, the film hit the box office with a vengeance and although released in the summer, has gone on to be considered not only one of the best action films of all time but one of the greatest Christmas movies too.
Die Hard was based on a novel by American writer Rotherick Thorpe titled Nothing Lasts Forever published in 1979. Its main character was Detective Joe Leland, played in the 1960’s film ‘The Detective’ by Frank Sinatra. The book was a sequel to The Detective. When the rights were optioned by 20th Century Fox, they were contractually obliged to offer Sinatra the lead role in the film. Sinatra was by then in his early 70s so turned down the project. The project was then changed around so as to have no connection to the earlier film. Writers Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de. Souza updated the story to modern times. A rumour has done the rounds stating that the film was offered to Arnold Schwarzenegger as a sequel to Commando to which Schwarzenegger turned it down in favour of trying his hand at comedy with Twins. This has been denied over the years. De Souza has stated he wrote the script as if the villain Hans Gruber was the main protagonist. The script was offered to various other actors including Richard Gere, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford and Sylvester Stallone to name but a few, all of whom turned the role down. Running out of options, using demographic data from Cinemascore led the producers and director John McTiernan to Bruce Willis.
Willis was a successful television actor at the time. Largely known for his role of David Addison on Moonlighting, he didn’t have a great track record on film. A few bit parts in films over the years and a starring role in Blake Edwards’ misfire Blind Date and Edwards’ next film Sunset didn’t make him a stand out name. To add to the problem, Willis turned down the role due to his commitments to the Moonlighting show. However, the movie gods smiled down on him as his co-star Cybill Shepherd became pregnant, causing the show to shut down for eleven weeks, opening the window of time needed for Willis to take the role. He was paid $5m for the role, an unheard of amount to an actor with a poor cinematic track record. However, Fox was desperate to get a star into the starring role. They looked on the film as their big summer hope and needed Willis to front the film. As many other actors had already turned the film down, insiders didn’t consider the film to seriously damage the box office tills.
The rest is history.
Die Hard was made for $28m and went on to gross $140.8m in total. Bruce Willis had audiences worldwide cheering for him as the hero John McClane. A simple story became one of cinemas greatest action films. And Willis sold every ticket and deserved every cent of his paycheck. Originally written to take place over three days, the film’s director John McTiernan decided it should be set over the course of one night, tightening the tension and feeling of claustrophobia. Using the headquarters of 20th Century Fox as the films external and internal scenes, the building served its purpose as, as written in the script, the building itself was still under construction at the time of filming and fitted the bill perfectly. The scene of the SWAT greyhound armoured vehicle smashing into the building took months of consultations and approval from Fox before it could be shot and had only two hours to be completed. The scene of McClane falling down the elevator shaft was not in the original screenplay, only coming about after an accident where Willis’ stuntman fell. Seeing the footage, editor Frank J Urioste decided to keep the unintentional and now classic scene in the film, giving the audience a true heart in the mouth moment.
Acclaimed English actor Alan Rickman was chosen to be the film’s villain after producer Joel Silver saw a performance he gave on Broadway. This was Rickman’s first feature film role and he stole the scenes he was in. As Hans Gruber, Rickman’s performance was chilling as it was charming. Here was a villain who thought nothing of shooting hostages in the head if he chose to. A villain who was willing to sacrifice his men and all the hostages to make his escape. All the while wearing an expensive three-piece suit, talking men’s fashion and admiring models and architecture. He epitomized the 1980’s. Gruber looks like an executive rather than a terrorist. You can see him working in an office or in Wall Street wearing those clothes and stealing from everyone with a pen and a computer. The ‘Yuppie’ generation was the spitting image of Gruber. They were the real villains.
The scene where Gruber falls to his death at the film’s climax has gone down in history. Rickman was dropped 70 feet on a green screen set. McTiernan deliberately didn’t tell Rickman he would drop him sooner than was planned. The look of terror on Rickman’s face as he falls wasn’t acting, it was 100% real. Though you cannot condone it, you have to admit that the look was perfect. Originally McClane and Gruber were not supposed to meet, the scene not appearing in the shooting script. It was written in and filmed when it was discovered Rickman could perform a convincing American accent. Rickman himself messed about with the accent during filming the scene. We the audience know he’s really the villain but McClane doesn’t. By Rickman messing about with the way he delivered his lines let there be that small chink of light that exposed him to Willis’ character.
Die Hard opened in limited release in 21 screens on July 15th, 1988. Five days later, the film opened wider across America. By the time it finished in the U.S, the film had made $83m. The majority of the critics worldwide praised the film, impressed by its visual style, its action sequences and the sheer roller coaster ride it gave the audience. The film appears on many critics lists as one of the best Christmas films of all time including many that have it as their number 1. Sitting alongside classic films like It’s a Wonderful Life, Scrooge, Miracle on 34th Street to name but a few is no easy feat to accomplish. For an action film to sit on the list with such highly regarded fare is unbelievable. The film is shown every Christmas worldwide and is shown in London every year at The Prince Charles Cinema in all its 70mm glory. There’s nothing better than watching the film on the big screen. The film deserves that much. Watching it on TV can’t bring the true power and enjoyment from the film.
This year marks the films 30th anniversary of release. Actually, in the UK it’s only 29 years as for some strange, stupid, unknown reason the film didn’t open here until February of 1989 but I digress. In the past 30 years, there’s been many imitators, many rip-offs and the film itself has had four sequels, Out of the sequels, only the 2nd and 3rd film carry the same kind of enjoyment as the original without ever coming close to being on par with it. Die Hard was an original, a breakthrough. Basically, it’s like cowboys and Indians in a tall office building with explosives and machine guns instead of rifles and bow and arrows. The film even references old westerns. Willis’ character even telling the outside police to call him Roy. Even the McClane’s now classic catchphrase recalls the old west, all be it with a four-letter expletive added but it adds to the charm of it being a throwback.
The film is being rereleased at movie theatres worldwide this Christmas. If you have never seen it on the big screen, then go and see it in it’s intended format in the only true place you can appreciate it properly. If you have seen it on the big screen before, buy yourself a ticket and go and see it again. Indulge yourself. You know what’s going to happen but what could be better than sitting down in a darkened theatre and allowing the sound surround you again and the visuals to bring back memories of 30 years ago? It’s worth every penny of the admittance fee so go and enjoy yourselves.
I said at the start of this article that Bruce Willis is wrong and again, he is. Because Die Hard IS a Christmas movie. And to me, it is the ULTIMATE Christmas movie.
Until next time…..
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