By Tom Anderson
The release of Die Hard in July 1988 was a seminal moment for not only the American film industry, but for world culture in general. Considered not only one of the greatest and most influential action films of all time, but of films in general, Die Hard elevated its stars from relative obscurity and created its own sub-genre of action films. These were described as ‘Die Hard on an X’, such as Under Siege being Die Hard on a battleship, Air Force One being Die Hard on a plane, and so on. According to legend, this continued until someone tried to pitch a film concept as ‘Die Hard in an office building’, apparently unaware that the original Die Hard was already set in an office building. Ironically enough, all Die Hard sequels after the initial one would abandon the formula that these films were copying: the concept of a lone badass protagonist fighting his way through some location that had been taken over by a nefarious force of villains, usually taking hostages in the process. It should be obvious that he is severely outnumbered and his stubborn resistance is seemingly hopeless, but he is, in fact, a diehard who refuses to give up. This is a term whose actual meaning (one dictionary definition is ‘a person who vigorously maintains or defends a seemingly hopeless position, outdated attitude, lost cause, or the like’) is now sometimes forgotten because people are more aware of the film title than the original word. Surely there can be no greater measure of success and impact of a media phenomenon!
Yet, as we so often see in these Chains of Consequences articles, comfortable certainties of history—whether in politics and war or in the seemingly more trivial world of pop culture—rest on a fragile house of cards of particular circumstances. If any of these had been only slightly different, we would be living in a world without Die Hard and its impact on the film industry, a world in which Bruce Willis is that TV actor from Moonlighting and the late Alan Rickman is a well-regarded but obscure British thespian. Exploring the pop culture of a world without Die Hard would be an interesting topic for an article in its own right, but for now let us focus on the circumstances that brought us here.
Jeb Stuart (not the Confederate general) was a young screenwriter desperate for work in 1987 due to projects falling through. His agent, Jeremy Zimmer, contacted the Gordon Company, an arm of 20th Century Fox, who had a project he could work on. The Gordon Company owned the rights to Nothing Lasts Forever, a 1978 novel by Roderick Thorp in which terrorists take over a skyscraper and a police officer has to fight them and attempt to rescue his daughter. Thorp had previously seen success with his 1966 novel The Detective, which had been adapted two years later into a film of the same name starring Frank Sinatra as protagonist Joe Leland. The Detective, described by its tagline as ‘An adult look at a police detective’, dealt with much more critical and controversial themes in comparison to the simplistic good-guys-and-bad-guys approach that had been common in cinema a few years earlier. In this it can be compared to Bullitt, released in the same year, today best remembered for its iconic car chase.
The novel Nothing Lasts Forever had been written as a sequel to The Detective and Leland returned as the protagonist. Thorp took inspiration from the film The Towering Inferno, later stating that he had a dream after watching it that involved a man being chased through a skyscraper by men with guns. The skyscraper in question was the headquarters of the Klaxon Oil Company, and the terrorists who take over are Germans led by Anton Gruber, known as ‘Little Tony the Red’. Thorp was taking inspiration from the then-recent Red Army Faction terrorist attacks in West Germany, a period known as the ‘German Autumn’; these also influenced Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, which was published two years later. Gruber’s terrorists plot to expose Klaxon Oil’s dealings with Chile’s dictatorship and also to destroy their profits by throwing cash from the skyscraper’s windows. Nothing Lasts Forever has a bitter ending, as the terrorists are defeated but Leland fails to save his daughter, who falls to her death; he ends up blaming Klaxon Oil and throwing the cash out himself. Perhaps not unrelated to this ending, a plan for a film follow-up with a returning Frank Sinatra as Leland became stuck in development hell after Sinatra declined the role. As the 1980s wore on and action movies changed in style and tone, A-listers such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were offered the role, only to decline it in turn.
Jeb Stuart now had his chance. Working with Steven E. de Souza, who had co-written Schwarzenegger’s successful vehicle Commando, he reworked the concept of Nothing Lasts Forever into what became Die Hard. Ironically given what came later, Lloyd Levin at the Gordon Company pitched the film as ‘Rambo in an office building’. Many of the changes to the original story reflect how the world had changed over the decade since Thorp wrote it. Rather than an American oil company with unsavoury dealings (which ironically would become topical again after the Exxon Valdez disaster a year after the film debuted) he gave the skyscraper setting to the fictional Nakatomi Corporation, referencing the 1980s zeitgeist that Japanese technology was taking over the world, especially California.
The Red Army Faction had faded from relevance and German terrorists now seemed unfitting; director John McTiernan (who considered terrorists ‘too mean’) had the brilliant notion of, rather than changing them to a different nationality, exploiting this very incongruity. The film comes with the early twist that Hans Gruber (as the leader, played by Rickman, was renamed) informs his hostages: “Who said we were terrorists?” In fact, though using the classic 1970s terrorist playbook and later allowing the authorities to gain this mistaken impression, Gruber and his men are professional thieves trying to steal over six hundred million dollars’ worth of bearer bonds from the Nakatomi Plaza’s vaults with their elaborate security. This plot twist reflects a 1980s American zeitgeist that money had replaced ideals for armed terrorists as much as corporations, although it would in itself become swiftly dated with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of the mujahideen (among others). One price paid for this otherwise compelling plot twist is that a subtlety of the original story is lost. Leland is conflicted in the story because he is having to kill naive young men and women that Tony Gruber has brainwashed, whereas Hans Gruber’s gang, though somewhat fleshed out as characters in their own right, are unashamed violent thieves whom John McClane has few regrets about putting bullets in.
Yes, as the film became a standalone story, Joe Leland was also lost in favour of a new protagonist—an NYPD cop initially named John Ford, then changed to John McClane after objections were raised due to a recently deceased director having the former name. Stuart, himself of Scots-Irish descent, chose a ‘good strong Scottish name’. One of the most compelling aspects of the film arose by accident, as the story goes. Stuart was working long days with long commutes, burning out, and had an argument with his wife as a result. Still angry, he went for a drive and promptly hit a large abandoned refrigerator box, which turned out to be empty. If it had still had the fridge in it, the car crash could have killed him, and he took it as a near-death experience and a reason to re-evaluate his life and reconcile with his wife. After doing so, he wrote 35 pages of the script in one night, finally having found a narrative core: that McClane should be a stubborn man trying to reconcile with his wife.
This was developed into a unique scenario which, again, neatly captured the zeitgeist of the 1980s. McClane and his wife Holly, now going by her maiden name ‘Ms Holly Gennaro’, are estranged not because of violence, infidelity or any such unsympathetic actions; instead, their split came because Holly’s successful corporate career brought her to LA and McClane was unwilling to follow. The limo driver who brings McClane from the airport, Argyle, perceptively suggests that he expected her to fail and come crawling back to him, but now he feels left behind. While McClane is the protagonist we are expected to sympathise with, Holly’s actions and her character are not presented negatively—she later stands up to Gruber after he murders her boss in cold blood and she becomes the most senior executive among the hostages. It is Ellis, a lickspittle sycophant whose establishing character moment is trying unsuccessfully to come on to Holly, who betrays them. While Holly is the 1980s career businesswoman who can stand on her own feet, McClane is the traditional masculine hero archetype who feels himself left behind by how society has changed. When he communicates with Gruber on CB radio, Gruber suggests that McClane has been brainwashed by simplistic 1950s cowboy films and TV; Gruber mentions John Wayne (a favourite of Stuart) while McClane says he preferred Roy Rogers. But McClane remains a stubborn ‘diehard’ by brushing off Gruber’s logic with the Rogers-referencing phrase that would become an iconic catchphrase of the film: “Yippie-ki-yay, motherf**ker!”
Perhaps precisely because of its lengthy production that in some ways goes back as far as The Detective in the 1960s, Die Hard seems to sum up not only the 1980s but also the late 20th century in America in general. The criticism and defence of heroic cowboy archetypes is one point, as is Gruber reeling off the biography of Mr Takagi when interrogating him. He notes that Takagi immigrated to California before the Second World War and then was interned during it, before working his way up to his current position of power—therefore neatly capturing the entirety of America’s complicated relationship with Japan since the 1930s.
Bruce Willis’ casting as John McClane was itself rather unlikely. Then known for his TV role on Moonlighting, Willis was offered the role but had to decline due to his commitments to that show. He only changed his mind when his co-star Cybill Shepherd fell pregnant and production was delayed for eleven weeks, allowing him the opportunity to take the film role. Unlike previous action heroes, Willis’ everyman persona made him more relatable and he did not feel invincible; he mixed deadpan one-liners with a real sense of fear. Willis later noted that he had read the original novel Nothing Lasts Forever and reflected that the injuries described would genuinely endanger Leland’s life; he brought this awareness of vulnerability to his performance.
Rickman’s performance as Gruber was also, rightly, critically acclaimed. Rickman’s distinctive delivery stems from overcoming a speech impediment as a child. As was recently noted in a discussion in the SLP forums, one reason why Die Hard works is that Rickman feels like a flipped protagonist rather than an antagonist. From his perspective, he is the leader of a crew in a heist movie, with McClane as a spanner in the works they have to overcome. This was deliberate on co-writer de Souza’s part, as he noted that the plot is driven by Gruber’s actions, not by McClane’s. Gruber and his thieves come up with inventive plans and change their ideas on the fly to adapt, feeling like a real battle of wits with McClane as he attempts to alert the authorities and Gruber comes up with ways to delay their realisation. Gruber’s thieves and their plan are not merely a set of obstacles in McClane’s way which can be built back up again offscreen in an unsatisfying manner; we know how many men he has and what they are doing, and we have as much a connection to them as to McClane. This was a change from the original story Nothing Lasts Forever, in which everything is told from Leland’s perspective; Stuart wrote new scenes to give Die Hard a unique sense of solidity and realism. Yet if we fear we are growing too close to Rickman with his compelling character and cleverness, he reminds us he is a bad guy, shooting Mr Takagi in the head in one early scene as soon as he is convinced he does not have the code he is looking for.
Producer Joel Silver, who had cast Rickman after seeing him perform on Broadway, wanted McClane and Gruber to have a meeting as part of the story before the final confrontation, feeling it would be a waste otherwise. The writers felt there was no way to realistically do this, as they would attempt to kill each other as soon as they met. But when De Souza heard Rickman putting on an American accent as a joke on-set, he realised that if McClane had only heard Gruber’s voice, Gruber could pretend to be a hostage—setting up a unique and memorable scene in the film. A previous scene, in which McClane witnesses Gruber shooting Takagi, was reworked in order to explain why McClane did not see Gruber’s face at the time.
Some film adaptations have almost nothing to do with their source material, but there is still a lot of Nothing Lasts Forever in Die Hard; Stuart credited Levin with helping him fully understand the novel. Remarkably, many of the iconic set-piece action scenes in the film are translated from written descriptions, such as dropping C4 down an elevator shaft or McClane taping his gun to his back at the climax. The concept of McClane being limited by being forced to go barefoot and broken glass being a hazard also comes from the novel. Stuart also built upon some characters and ideas which are brought up in the book but not elaborated upon, such as the character of Argyle.
But whence the new title Die Hard? As mentioned before, this is a longstanding phrase used to define someone stubbornly sticking to a seemingly lost cause, often used in politics. Unlike many phrases, we know exactly who first came up with it, when, and why.
The Peninsular War (1807-1814) saw British troops sent to Portugal and Spain to aid the forces of those countries against Napoleonic France. Today in Britain it is best known for the successful Sharpe franchise of novels by Bernard Cornwell, and especially its TV adaptation starring Sean Bean. Many blows against the French were struck not by regular Spanish forces but by irregular partisans who fought ‘the little war’, guerrilla in Spanish. From this came the tautological English terms ‘guerrilla warfare’ and ‘guerrilla fighter’, though in the original Spanish fighters were called guerrillero if male and guerrillera if female.
Going into the full details of the war would take many articles, but one battle among many was the Battle of Albuera in May 1811. The village in question was located near the frontier fortress city of Badajoz, French occupied but under siege by the Allies. Napoleon’s Marshal Soult marched from Andalusia to attempt to relieve the siege, but his army was met by an Allied one at Albuera. The battle was a bloody stalemate with little long-term impact, as Soult was unable to break through but the Allies had to abandon their siege soon afterwards anyway.
However, the battle did give us the title of Die Hard. A British regiment, the 57th (West Middlesex) Regiment of Foot, was subject to particularly intense attack by the French. Normally the regiment would be spread out in line, but French cavalry forced them to form up more compactly for defence, which made them vulnerable to artillery. Their commander, Colonel William Inglis, was hit by a charge of canister shot and badly wounded. He refused to be carried behind the lines for treatment, but remained with the men and repeatedly shouted “Die hard, 57th! Die hard!” when the French bombarded again and again.
Despite the bloodiness of the battle, the line just barely held and the French columns eventually retreated. Remarkably, Inglis survived his brutal wounds and lived until 1835: a fate worthy of John McClane, perhaps. The name The Die-hards became the 57th’s regimental motto. It was kept in circulation when it was later applied more sarcastically: years later to the Duke of Wellington’s supporters who resisted modernising the Army, and then to the aristocrats who tried to stop Lloyd George’s People’s Budget. It remained a recognisable phrase up until the 1980s when a film needed a new title, and the rest is history.
Once again, we see how far forward the shadows of seemingly trivial events are cast. Without a battle in the 1810s, a novel in the 1960s and a sequel in the 1970s, a film that defined the zeitgeist of the late 1980s—and led to a million copies in the 90s and later—could never have been.
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.