Since its release in 1988, "Die Hard" has become a
benchmark of action films, frequently cited as one of the best
action films of the past twenty years. The film has also become
part of Hollywood vocabulary, used to describe other films: "Die
Hard" at the Stanley Cup. "Die Hard" on a bus. "Die Hard" on a
warship. "Die Hard" in a hospital. "Die Hard" on a train. "Die
Hard" in a luxury condo complex. And "Die Hard" on a submarine.
Why has this film received such an elevated degree of
recognition and respect? The answer lies in the multi layered
characters and complex-yet-organic script by Jeb Stuart and
Steven E. deSouza. Every nuance, every twist and reversal, every
shading of character is spelled out on the page; making "Die
Hard" the ideal learning screenplay for the action genre.
But first a little history. "Die Hard" began life as a
sequel to another movie. In 1968, Roderick Thorp's best selling
novel "The Detective" had been made into a film starring Frank
Sinatra and Lee Remick, released by 20th Century Fox. When the
film became a hit, the producers told Thorp if he wrote a sequel,
they would buy it. Thorp's response was "I'm writing one now."
Then he went home and started writing a new chapter in the life
of the detective played by Frank Sinatra. He had read a book
titled "The Glass Tower" (which would eventually be made into the
film "The Towering Inferno") about a group of people trapped on
the top floor of a high rise office building by a raging fire,
and found the idea of people trapped above the reach of rescue
In that time period, the newspaper headlines seldom reported
fires. What they did report was civil unrest, the latest bombings
by the Weather Underground, and the latest kidnapping or bank
robbery committed by the Red Army terrorist group. So Thorp
substituted terrorists for fire, his Detective for the firemen...
and "Nothing Lasts Forever" was born.
Fox made a "back loaded" purchase deal with Thorp, with the
majority of his payment coming when the film went into
production. This didn't bother Thorp, as the hardback book would
certainly become a best seller as soon as the film was officially
announced. Thorp was on easy street.
Until Frank Sinatra turned down the film. And the hardback
book (without the heat of the film deal) didn't become a best
seller. "Nothing Lasts Forever" didn't even go to paperback until
1979, and even with good reviews ("Single mindedly brilliant in
concept and execution" - Los Angeles Times) it did not sell well.
Fifteen years later, Joel Silver was looking for a project
they could make on the cheap. He found "Nothing Lasts Forever" in
the Fox archives and commissioned a script.
The first person they offered the lead to was, of course,
Frank Sinatra. He had played the character in the hit film "The
Detective", after all. Sinatra turned it down again. Silver
offered it to Robert Mitchum. Mitchum thought there was too much
running and jumping for a man his age, and declined.
With the clock ticking, Silver decided to change the story
from the father/estranged daughter conflict of the novel to a
husband/estranged wife conflict, and hire a younger man. Steven
deSouza made revisions, and turned "Nothing Lasts Forever" into
"Die Hard". Bruce Willis was paid the unbelievable fee of five
million dollars for his first film role... And Roderick Thorp's
novel finally became a paperback best seller!
The key to "Die Hard"s success is its adherence to the
special structure of action films. The most important single
element in an action script is not the protagonist, but the
Villain's Plan. We can excise John McClane from "Die Hard" and we
would still have a group of hostages held on the 30th floor of
the Nakatomi Building by terrorist/"exceptional thief" Hans
Gruber. Officer Powell might then become the protagonist. If we
remove Powell from the scene, the protagonist might become FBI
Agent Johnson (no, the other one). Or Holly Genero might become
the protagonist, using level-headed strength to save her fellow
captives. Only Hans Gruber and his plan to rob the Nakatomi
Building on Christmas Eve remains the constant.
In an action script, the protagonist is reactive; it is the
villain who has the active role. When Hans and his team take over
the Nakatomi Building to rob its vault of 640 million dollars in
negotiable bonds, they take the Christmas party crowd on the 30th
floor hostage. We find out later, the hostages are an integral
part of their plan. The hostages bring in the FBI, and Hans needs
the FBI to shut off the power grid (which will open the vault).
When Holly Genero is taken hostage, she is part of Hans' plan.
One of the actions he has taken which will lead to the robbery of
the Nakatomi vault.
McClane has a reactive role. His estranged wife has been
taken, and he sets out to rescue her. Before Hans took her
hostage, he had no reason to rescue her. His motivation exists
only because of Hans' actions. The most important character in
"Die Hard" is Hans Gruber, and the character motivations for the
success of the script are his. Not McClane's.
But what makes "Die Hard" into a superior script is the
nexus between the Villain's Plan and the Protagonist's character
arc. Though we could remove McClane from the story and still have
a film, it is John McClane who turns "Die Hard" into the
quintessential model for action scripts.
What makes John McClane the perfect protagonist for "Die
Hard" is that the external conflict forces him to confront and
solve an internal conflict, leading to a single solution which
solves both problems and brings peace to the protagonist.
John McClane is estranged from his wife Holly because he
will not accept her as a career woman. Her career comes second to
his, and his attitude is expressed in this exchange (pg 7, 8):
So, your lady live out here?
The past six months.
(thinking about that)
Meanwhile, you still live in New York?
You're nosey, you know that, Argyle?
So, you divorced, or what?
McClane gives up.
She had a good job, it turned into a
But meant her moving here.
Closer to Japan. You're fast.
So, why didn't you come?
'Cause I'm a New York cop who used to
be a New York kid, and I got six months
backlog of New York scumbags I'm still
trying to put behind bars. I don't just
get up and move.
(to the point)
You mean you thought she wouldn't make
it out here and she'd come crawling on
back, so why bother to pack?
Like I said, Argyle.... You're fast.
McClane wants Holly to come to him both physically (note the
number of times he uses New York in his exchange) and
metaphorically (Argyle's observation that McClane would like her
to come crawling back to him). He doesn't feel the need to meet
her halfway, and we get the feeling he has flown to Los Angeles
in the hopes of taking her back to New York with him. When they
meet, McClane and Holly have this exchange (from page 16 &17).
I remember this one particular married
woman, she went out the door so fast
there was practically a jet wash...I
mean, talk about your windchill factor...
Didn't we have this same conversation in
July? Damn it, John, there was an opportunity
out here... I had to take it...
No matter what it did to out marriage?
My job and my title and my salary did
nothing to our marriage except change
your idea of what it should be....
You want to know my idea of a marriage?
It's a partnership where people help
each other over the rough spots, console
each other when there's a down... and when
there's an up, hell, a little Goddamn applause
or an attaboy wouldn't be too bad.
I needed that, John.
I deserved that.
There's a clumsy pause as if she's challenging him to say...
something, but he sets his jaw, says nothing.
Without being antagonistic, McClane refuses to meet Holly
halfway. He refuses to come to her. It is only when Hans' Plan
puts Holly in danger, that McClane finally realizes how much he
loves her, and how uncompromising his stance concerning their
marriage has become (his "Hamlet Moment"). Witness this exchange
with Officer Powell from page 94:
Look... I'm getting a bad feeling up
here... I'd like you to do something
for me. Look up my wife... and tell her...
tell her... I've been a jerk. When things
panned out for her, I should have been
behind her all the way... We had something
great going until I screwed it up. She was
the best thing that ever happened to a
bum like me. She's heard me say I Love You
a thousand times, but she never got to
hear this... honey, I'm sorry.
It is only after he faces and conquers this internal
conflict that he becomes strong enough to take on Hans (his
external conflict) and rescue Holly and the other hostages.
Without the external conflict from Hans' Plan, McClane would not
have been forced to resolve this problem, and their marriage
would have ended. The resolution for the external conflict and
internal conflict intersect, creating a strong, organic plot.
The theme of "Die Hard" is probably How Far Will We Go For
Love? McClane learns he would risk his life for the love of his
wife, but many other characters echo this theme throughout the
Holly has a love of self reliance and independence so strong
that she risks her life by standing up to the terrorists, as in
the scene on page 54-I and 54-J where Holly confronts Hans, slyly
calling him an idiot and stating that "Personally, I don't enjoy
being this close to you," in order to get medical help and
bathroom privileges for the other hostages.
Ellis loves to make deals, which is referred to when his
character is introduced on page 12, and on page 67 where he
attempts to deal with the terrorists. His love for deal making
leads to his death, when the deal sours.
The terrorist Karl loves his brother Tony. When Tony is
killed by McClane, Karl vows vengeance. From this point on,
Karl's sole motivation is revenge against McClane for his
brother's death. He is no longer an active participant in Hans'
Plan, except when it intersects his own goals.
The reporter Thornburg loves breaking stories. When he first
hears of the Nakatomi Tower takeover, he dumps his girlfriend to
cover the story (page 53). Even after getting punched in the
nose, Thornburg's response is "Did you get that?" to the camera
man. Story before self.
Deputy Chief Dwayne T. Robinson loves to be officious. He
would risk the lives of the hostages just for the chance of
adding a little red tape to the negotiations.
Even a minor Terrorist's love for junk food takes him to the
extreme of snagging a candy bar during a shoot out scene.
Hans, of course, loves material possessions. He could
discuss men's fashions all day, but they are here to rob the
vault of 640 million dollars. After the robbery has soured and
Hans has been tossed out a broken window, what does he grab hold
of? Holly's gold Rolex. He's still grabbing at possessions, even
on his way down to the pavement.
Before he reaches the pavement, Hans Gruber has shown
himself to be superior in every way. Not only is his plan well
thought out and ingenious, he is actually several moves ahead of
everyone else. He knows the FBI will cut the power, and has
planned ahead. He has a plan for every move McClane makes, from
setting the fire alarms to radioing the police. His plan to open
the vault at Nakatomi is complex and flawless. Hans' forethought,
his "exactness and attention to every detail" has supplied a
solution for every conceivable problem.
And Hans is clever enough to think on his feet. When McClane
stumbles upon him on the top floor of the building, here's what
Hans turns, looks up.
The transformation in his expression and bearing are mind-
boggling. Hands shaking, eyes filled with fear, he swallows,
looks up at McClane and in a perfect American accent says:
...OhGodplease...don'tkill me...don't kill
me... you're one of them, I know it...
Whoa, easy man. I won't hurt you.
This scene turns into a multi-reversal. Hans talks McClane
into giving him a gun. Hans then reveals his identity and aims
the gun at McClane. But McClane has removed the clip, making the
gun useless. But Hans has alerted Karl and Franco, who attack
McClane. Which leads to the glass shooting sequence, where Hans
proves his strategic superiority, and presses McClane to his
point of no return which leads into the third act.
This is the first time that McClane and Hans come face to
face, and it happens fairly late in the script (page 78). The
relationship between hero and villain in "Die Hard" doesn't
follow the "Flipside" model traditionally used in action films,
where the hero and villain's similarities are accentuated.
Instead, "Die Hard" harkens back to the social consciousness
films of the 1930s, like Warner Brother's "Captain Blood", where
the differences between hero and villain are highlighted.
McClane and Hans are almost opposites. McClane with his
working class, blue collar back ground; and Hans with his
classical education and Saville Row suits. This is a battle of
style and substance, with McClane's street experience pitted
against what Hans read about in Time Magazine or Forbes and saw
on 60 Minutes (pg 24, 68, 74). McClane and Hans' first
conversation (pg 54-A) points out the contrasts between the two.
Hans' dialogue is refined, he refers to McClane as a 'party
crasher'. McClane, on the other hand, makes references to game
shows and cowboys, calling himself "Just the fly in the ointment,
the monkey in the wrench, the pain in the ass".
One of the keys to the success of "Die Hard" is John McClane
himself. He speaks in a language we can understand, rather than
the stuffy, dry, pseudo intellectual and professorial language of
Hans. He IS a cowboy: an individualistic man whose character is
earthy and grounded in reality. A multi layered hero, who isn't
afraid to admit to his fear. In his introduction (pg 1), we see
him white knuckled as the 747 lands in Los Angeles. When a fellow
passenger comments on his fear of flying, McClane makes a joke
about it at his own expense. He is a man who acknowledges his
fears and weaknesses and has learned to live with them.
When McClane is faced with dangerous situations later on,
this fear humanizes him. He is not some super human hero; but a
husband, father, and very mortal man who must overcome his fears
to survive. He feels as we would in his situation. McClane must
grow into a hero to survive. That growth is the key to a
successful action script, as witnessed by both "The Fugitive" and
"In The Line Of Fire" which follow the same pattern.
One of the most impressive aspect's of Steven deSouza's
writing in "Die Hard" is the ending, where a dozen sub plots are
brought to conclusion in 4 quick pages. From Hans' death, to the
Nakatomi Bonds falling like Christmas snow, to Holly giving up
her gold Rolex (and all the greed is symbolizes), to Argyle the
limo driver's smashing the getaway car in the underground garage,
to the first face-to-face meeting of hero and sidekick (McClane
and Powell), to Thornburg getting punched in the nose (for being
too nosey), to Dpt. Chief Robinson's officiousness being
completely ignored, to Karl's last ditch revenge for his
brother's death, to Sgt. Powell regaining his ability to shoot
his gun, to Holly and McClane reuniting... All of this and more
in the space of four flowing pages. DeSouza makes this complex
web seem effortless and elegant.
By weaving together the big action story fueled by the plan
of a larger than life villain, with the smaller, personal story
of a husband who must find the courage to admit he is wrong
before he can reconcile with his estranged wife; Steven deSouza
has turned "Die Hard" into a classic action film, the model of
what a genre script should strive for, and the barometer with
which to measure all future action films.