The Myth of Macho: Die Hard

Ariel Schudson defends the action film's status as a true American classic, worthy of historical preservation

Ariel Schudsonby Ariel Schudson

The Myth of Macho: Die Hard

Welcome back to The Myth of Macho, where take a look at what puts the muscle in muscle shirts and we explain why shooting dozens of people with a .357 might actually have more to do with the desire for peace and civility than war and violence.

I love action films. I really, truly do. Not all of them are fantastic, but when they’re great, they can be transcendent. I would argue that some of the best examples of action cinema occurred in the 1980s/early 1990s and that (for different reasons) these very films absolutely hold up when measured against what are traditionally considered to be “classic” pieces of cinema. These action films, much like Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1931) or This Gun for Hire (Frank Tuttle, 1942) maintain a significance and importance in our cinematic economy. Not simply because the films that have been placed in the “all brawn, no brains” category have a tendency to highlight an era’s gender performativity or reflect a certain set of political views, but because these are great movies and, beyond that, carry with them the heaviest weight of all: enjoyability.

In this series I have managed to cover a variety of films that the larger media community considers “high quality cinema.” Few (if any) cineastes will admit to having problems with Kubrick, and even Lethal Weapon retains a fair amount of admirability due to Shane Black’s skills as a screenwriter. But I think it is equally important to remember that the films that we know, love and respect today as “high class cinematic product” were not always seen as high class: especially those films that dealt with violence and crime. Gangster films, film noir, horror…these movies were placed on the lower end of the spectrum in the early days of cinema. Yet now, in 2012, we get googly-eyed over the Blu-rays and hold the films in high-regard, as essential aspects of film history and veritable pillars of film culture.

The Myth of Macho: Die Hard

When pieces like The Doorway to Hell (Archie Mayo, 1930) and Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931) were released, the larger response was the enforcement of the Production Code of 1934. Gangster films, while merely a small slice of the vast index of films in the pre-code era, were very popular in the public sphere. People loved these films in the 1930’s. Unfortunately, their anti-hero protagonists, high concentration of anti-authoritarian subject matter and extreme violence led those films directly to get labeled by all “good citizenry” as bad news for the kiddies, and in need of readjustment under a moral code (the Production Code).

So is it unrealistic to expect people to accept my belief that some of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s films like Predator (John McTiernan, 1987) or Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987) have as much filmic value as The Public Enemy (William A. Wellman, 1931) or Smart Money (Alfred E. Green, 1931)? I don’t think so. The concept that these films got shafted in their day and the action films that I know and love have also gotten a bad rap (many times for the same things… an excess of violence, sexual provocativeness or inappropriate behavior) seems highly suspect to me.

The Myth of Macho: Die Hard

Indeed, I am not the only one who loves action cinema and believes in its cinematic value. The film that is the subject of this week’s Myth of Macho has had an extremely active promotional campaign going for its submission to the National Film Registry for nearly a year now, and that is partially why I wish to discuss it. The idea that someone would campaign so devotedly in order to enter this film into the National Archives; that someone would spend this much time in order to make certain that this film be included in and considered as a significant part of our cinematic heritage is not an act without meaning nor is it easy.

What action flick could someone possibly get that passionate about? Only a film that has made it onto several “best of” lists and one that I, too, feel rightfully has a place in the National Film Registry. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the film we’re looking at this week is very likely one of the best modern action films ever made. It’s a really fun little movie, released in July of 1988, called Die Hard, directed by John McTiernan.

The Myth of Macho: Die Hard

John McClane (Bruce Willis) is a good New York cop and a dedicated family man. Well…that last part is a little complicated. His wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) gets a good job in California but John does not accompany her due because he believes that she’s going to fail and come crawling back within a few months. When this, of course, does not happen, McClane sees that he may have made a mistake. Holly then invites him out to California for Christmas, summarily to see the kids but clearly also to re-evaluate their relationship. As they begin these discussions in the bathroom of her offices during her company Christmas party, European thugs carrying excessive quantities of explosives and machine guns break in, headed by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), a leader who has a penchant for hostage-taking and a skill for high-level burglary. All hell breaks loose. McClane is not one of those taken hostage, manages to escape, and the film proceeds from there, becoming a true testament to excitement, adventure and action.    

What I like best about Die Hard and what I believe makes it the most cinematically valuable is that it is one of the very few films that depicts the American male in an honest and positive perspective. The character of John McClane is certainly an action hero, but unlike most of his contemporaries, he does not exist under the pretense of the “lookit me, I’m badass, gonna live forever, ‘cuz I’m an action hero” clause. The charm and bewildering singularity of Die Hard’s hero is that, while he may be a cop (and a very smart and resourceful one at that), he doesn’t think he’s going to live forever. It is this conceit and the revelation of his flawed masculinity that enriches his character and fleshes it out, strengthening the bond between audience and protagonist even further.

The Myth of Macho: Die Hard

Towards the end of the picture, we see McClane in one of the bathrooms of the Nakatomi Plaza highrise building that has been brutalized just about as much as he has been. Beaten, wounded, literally almost naked and bleeding from a variety of different places on his body (most notably his bare feet), he makes a plea to Al (Reginald VelJohnson), the police officer on the ground with whom he has managed to develop a relationship with via walkie-talkie through the course of the film. John McClane is quite seriously injured and he is clearly not pulling a Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal, physically reflecting the injury but not registering it to the audience, as that would reveal weakness. In fact, McClane is bleeding more in this scene than he has at any other point in the film and has lost almost every protective covering on his body, including shoes.

It is at this stage in the film that McClane lays bare the ways in which his masculinity has hurt him, even though we have watched it assist him in a multiplicity of ways through the duration of the film. While previous scenes have shown his physical strength and raw ability to survive and protect, in this scene he describes the lived experience of being a Real Man, with all its flaws and imperfections, and his face reveals that he is in possibly the most staggering pain of his life- physically because he is wounded and mentally because he is unsure if he will come out of this situation alive in order to make up for the damage that he has caused the woman he loves.

The Myth of Macho: Die Hard

McClane leans up against the bathroom tiles and speaks into the walkie-talkie,

“Listen man, I’m starting to get a bad feeling up here. I want you to do something for me. I want you to find my wife. Don’t ask me how, by then you’ll know how. I want you to tell her something. I want you to tell her that it took me a while to figure out what a jerk I’ve been…But that when things started to pan out for her I shoulda been more supportive and I shoulda been behind her more. Tell her that she’s the best thing that ever happened to a bum like me. She’s heard me say I love you a thousand times, she never heard me say I’m sorry. I want you to tell her that, Al, will you tell her that? Will you tell her that John said that he was sorry, okay? Got that man?”

This is an action movie? Really? Oh yeah. You bet your ass it is. What else would you call a film where the entire roof of a high-rise is blown to bits as hostages race down the stairs, hoping that they do not become part of the C-4 infused insanity? I’ll take action for $500, Alex. And what of a film where automatic weaponry is the rule and not the exception? A film with dialogue sprinkled beautifully with witty one-liners and evil villainous plots like a gourmet dish? Mmmm, action. Gritty, nifty, delicious action.

I’ll also take Die Hard. Any day, any time, anywhere. Gimme.

The Myth of Macho: Die Hard

Who wouldn’t? When McClane climbs through the air vent to spy on Hans and company, grumbling at the camera, “Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs…" not only is it funny, charming, and exciting, all feelings you should be feeling from your hero, it’s a little nerve-wracking. He’s in the air shaft! Anything could happen!

When McClane gets ahold of a walkie-talkie and contacts a police unit, they immediately chastise him for using an “emergency channel.” As he has gone through several thugs and gun battles to get to this point, he looks at the device in that special way that only an incredulous Action Bruce Willis can and responds by screaming back into the controller, “No fucking shit, lady. Does it sound like I'm ordering a pizza?” Any action junkie watching should go ballistic at this point, clap, howl, the works. This scene is the basic moment where the Local Authority lets the Action Hero know that they’re on their own because Local Authority is A) too stupid to see what’s really going on, or B) there is some kind of complex corruption in the works that makes it impossible to do anything. In this case, it’s A), and In McClane We Trust.

The Myth of Macho: Die Hard

What is Die Hard and why is it that, for many people, it has replaced It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) in the way of “favorite Christmas film”?Because, while Wonderful Life is still dark and delightful much in the way that Die Hard is dark and delightful, the reality of central figure George Bailey is different than John McClane’s reality, and people are ready for a change. While George Bailey’s story deals with many of the same issues as John McClane’s – money, family, ego, love – the masculine narrative of It’s a Wonderful Life revolves around a self-destructive action: suicide. Die Hard, on the other hand, revolves around actions of liberation and protection, conventions of the action film. However, Die Hard maintains just as many layers as its Jimmy Stewart-focused predecessor. By containing the reality of a cop who isn’t just that “tough action hero” from the movies or TV, Die Hard becomes something more than just a genre flick: it becomes a real film, and an action film that should become part of our cultural heritage.

As usual, thanks for being part of our weekly visits to that template of testosterone we like to call The Myth of Macho. Remember: your brain is a muscle… Pump it up!

Ariel Schudson is a featured columnist at CraveOnline and the president of the Student Chapter of the Association of Moving Image Archivists at UCLA. Stalk her electronically at @Sinaphile