Giz Investigates: Why 'Die Hard' is Definitely a Christmas Movie, And Why 'It's a Wonderful Life' is Definitely Not

By Tom Pritchard on at

It's a debate that has raged on for years. Is Die Hard really a Christmas movie? Some people adamantly claim that it is not, possibly because they don't actually like Die Hard, while others will refuse to accept that John McClane's premiere adventure is anything but a Christmas-themed action movie.

We here at Giz have our own opinion, of course, and it's that Die Hard is absolutely 100 per cent a Christmas film. But simply arguing that case is dull, tiresome, and has been done a hundred times over. So we're mixing things up by simultaneously arguing that while Die Hard is a Christmas movie,  the yuletide classic It's a Wonderful Life is not.

Where Does Christmas Fit Into These Films?

As different as the two films are, both Die Hard and It's a Wonderful Life share one key similarity: Christmas. Christmas is not the focus of either film, instead it's just a backdrop that gives the stories some sort of setting. The way they use that setting is vastly different, however.

In fact, IAWL barely uses it at all. During the 2h10m runtime, we don't have any mention of Christmas until 1h16m. The title cards have very festive imagery, but that's about it until over halfway through the film. Even then the Christmas aspect is thrown on the backburner. It may be set at Christmas, but the film is actually the story of George Bailey and all the ways he wished his life would have been different. It's more a biography of the man, bringing you all the way to the lowest point in his life. A point that just happens to be on Christmas Eve but could otherwise have taken place on any other day of the year.

Die Hard is like Home Alone. Both are set at Christmas, and while both could be rewritten to discount the Christmas setting, it's the perfect backdrop for everything to come together. Christmas proves to be the perfect opportunity for Hans Gruber and his lackeys to take over Nakatomi Plaza. The Christmas party means there are still plenty of hostages to exploit, and because it's running through the night they're able to infiltrate and lockdown the building without raising the alarm.

Christmas is also the reason John McClane is in Los Angeles in the first place, since he made the journey to reconcile with his family at the time of year where family is supposed to come above all else. The fact almost nobody knew he was coming, including his own wife, meant that he became the variable in the whole operation. He was able to sneak around for so long because Gruber had no idea he was there, and more importantly it's only once the film is nearly over that he realised who he really is.

I'm not saying Die Hard couldn't work at another time of year, because it could, but it would mean a bit more creative rewriting. Why are the people there? Why is John on the other side of the country? Why is the area surrounding Nakatomi so devoid of life, and why are the cops so horrendously incompetent? It's easily explained away by the fact that it's Christmas.

You can't really say the same thing about It's a Wonderful Life. The Christmas setting is totally irrelevant, and as mentioned before is ignored for the majority of the film. You could remove all mention of Christmas and the film would be exactly the same, and in fact might be less depressing. A man so downtrodden he's willing to take his own life doesn't really make for a happy occasion, but the fact that it's Christmas gives it that little edge. Maybe that's the point, but other than this subtle possibility it's not pertinent to the story in any way.

So What the Heck is It's a Wonderful Life?

It's a Wonderful Life is definitely a religious story, what with the angel coming down to Earth to make sure George Bailey won't throw his life away unnecessarily. Maybe things were different back in the 1940s, but these days (at least in this country) Christmas isn't bound by its links to religion as it was back in the day. There's still a strong link between Santa and Jesus, and it's more than possible to have one of the two without the other. You don't need to be a Church person to celebrate with turkey and presents, and you don't need turkey and presents to celebrate the birth of the man you believe is the son of God.

One could call George Bailey's redemption a Christmas Miracle, but the divine intervention actually has nothing to do with the holiday. The celestials took notice because people were praying extra hard for him, and that could happen on literally any other day of the year. The Christmas bit is again, totally inconsequential.

The fact that IWL is only set at Christmas time for its final fifty or so minutes means there are very few references to the holiday itself. In fact it's barely seen as a big deal, particularly since everyone seems to be working on the night of Christmas Eve. The financial investigator claims he wants to get his job over with so he can spend Christmas with his family, implying that it's not an absolute guarantee. Aside from that, the decorations in George's house, and the fact he screams Merry Christmas like Scrooge on cocaine after returning to reality you'd barely know it's Christmas.

Okay, you can't exactly miss those final two things given how in-your-face they are, but they strike me as an obvious attempt from director Frank Capra to say, "look it's a Christmas film, alright? Here's an overly decorated living room if you don't believe me." Almost as though he's trying too hard, and that the setting was an afterthought to capitalise on the late December release. In fact, Capra himself admitted in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that he didn't initially think of the film as a Christmas story.

"I didn't even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea."

It's also worth mentioning that there are plenty of films out there that are set at Christmas, but don't deserve to be classified as Christmas films. Like Iron Man 3. That's set at Christmas, but like IAWL it's completely inconsequential and has zero effect on the film. That list probably isn't very long, especially if you remove everything written by Shane Black, but IAWL definitely deserves its place on there.

Christmas Films Don't All Need to be the Same Old Shtick

Die Hard, on the other hand, is littered with Christmas references, has Christmas music in the soundtrack (notably Run DMC's Christmas in Hollis), and the classic line "Now I Have a Machine Gun, Ho-Ho-Ho." Someone actually chronicled the lot by live tweeting them as and when he saw them:

It's not in your face about it, like some Christmas films, because that's not the point of the film. Die Hard is about a man fighting bad guys, crawling through vents, and trying to reunite with his family. But just because it doesn't take that Christmas theme and amplify it to sickening levels doesn't mean that it's not a Christmas film. It is a Christmas film, but happens to be one that recognises that Christmas isn't the only thing worth talking about. It's also strictly for adults rather than the whole family, which means it's able to have some fun. Fun that includes throwaway lines that became cinematic classics.

Because let's be honest, OTT Christmas sentiment is boring. It's been done so many times, then remade and rebooted to the point where we know what's going to happen. Everything will be fine in the end. But I'm going off topic. Just because Die Hard is a better film than most Christmas movies doesn't mean they don't count. Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever is dreadful, but it's still an obviously festive film.

Why do People Think This Way?

In many ways it's obvious why people might think It's a Wonderful Life is a Christmas film and Die Hard is not. IAWL has become a staple of Christmas broadcasting across the world and was initially released on 20th December 1946. Die Hard, on the other hand, was released in July of 1988 in the US (February 1989 in the UK). As I mentioned before, it's also lacking much of the OTT sentiment cliché that Christmas films have become known for.

The thing is that IAWL was never actually that popular when it first came out. The film only made $3.3 million on a $3.18 million budget, which isn't nearly enough to qualify it as a success. In fact, RKO Pictures ended up recording a $525,000 loss on the film, which accounts to roughly $5.8 million in modern cash. Reviews were also pretty mixed, with some critics dismissing the sentimentality of the story.

The reason it ended up on TV every year was because someone forgot to properly renew the copyright in 1974, which led to the film's imagery ending up in the public domain. While TV studios were still required to pay royalties (the story's copyright never lapsed), it was a cheap way to fill up two hours of the Christmas TV schedule. The National Telefilm Associates (NTA) managed to win back the copyright in the early '90s, successfully arguing to the US Supreme Court that because it owned the copyright to The Greatest Gift (the short story IAWL was based on) then it also owned the copyright to the film.

But by then the damage was already done, so to speak, and It's a Wonderful Life had been cemented into the minds of people around the world as traditional Christmas viewing. Even though, as we've discussed, the film has naff all to do with Christmas.

So if you're sitting down with family or friends to watch something Christmassy this year, make the right decision: Don't watch It's a Wonderful Life. Not only is it really, really dull, it's also not Christmassy enough for your sentimental old mind. Watch Die Hard instead. It's actually an interesting film, contains plenty of Christmas cheer, and copious amounts of the word "motherfucker". What more could you ask for?