John McTiernan’s 1988 film Die Hard begins with a plane touching down. Nervously on board is the film’s not-yet hero John McClane, who lands in California but does not arrive. He’s frightfully out of place in California: he is visibly nervous on the flight, does not know the etiquette of riding in a limo, and thinks his former Captain lives in a city called “Ramona,” the real city’s name being Pomona. This sense of displacement is underlined by his repeated scoff “California.” Nor does John find a place in the arms of his wife, Holly. John has not only been displaced, but emasculated: he discovers Holly has been working in her high powered corporate career under her maiden name, and when John and Holly reunite, Holly’s boss Takagi makes a point of telling John that Holly “was made for this business, tough as nails.” And Ellis, Holly’s co-worker, presses her to show John her watch, “a small token of appreciation for all her hard work,” and then turning to John with swagger specifies: “It’s a Rolex.” This seems to be Ellis’s proof to John that he made a mistake not supporting Holly’s career, but also that he is more her kind of man than John as Ellis has already made a pass at her.
While Holly rebuffs Ellis, her career has interrupted her marriage to John and changed how they relate to each other. When they find a moment alone in Ellis’s private bathroom, John attempts to relate to Holly as her husband and warns her that Ellis “has his eye on [her].” But Holly, still in corporate mode, relates to him as a business-woman responding “It’s okay, I have my eye on his private bathroom.” Holly defends her decision to move to L.A. as a career opportunity she had to take while John chastises her for not considering the consequences her choice would make on their marriage. Business continues to interrupt their ability to communicate when Holly’s secretary interrupts their argument to call Holly away to make a speech.
John’s displacement is only exaggerated when moments later the Christmas party is interrupted by “terrorists” and John finds himself separated from the others, including Holly, and is armed with only his service pistol, wearing only an undershirt, and without any shoes. Stripped of everything he seems to have, he appears immensely vulnerable. At stake are dozens of lives and his marriage, but this is not just an innocent exercise in defining what it means to be a good husband and father. John’s passage to becoming the right kind of man occurs in contrast to many other masculine postures explored throughout the film, each of which relates to certain notions of and displays of power. All the competing definitions of masculinity serve to differentiate John, as the film is not encouraging he jump from emasculated to overly macho. What emerges is a very specific definition of the ideal man: the Westerner. Die Hard uses the images and legacy of the Western genre as a model for John’s evolution as a man. John, however, pays a heavy price for this transformation, revealing that masculinity may not be quite as powerful, dominating, or oppressive as it sometimes seems. Although Die Hard is, not surprisingly, often accused of being sexist against women, ultimately the film exposes the myths we hold about the meaning and muscle of male power.
The last place John should feel alienated is the West. That he is becomes a heavy irony as the film leans heavily on Western patterns, values, and notions of heroism. There are allusions to the genre almost immediately: the opening shot has the plane moving from the right to the left of the screen, literally moving West. In addition, the plane lands against an extremely orange sunset, the sky almost appearing burnt. Sunsets, especially of this colour, are probably more attached to Westerns than any other genre. But there is something strange about this West. A strangeness John seems to notice as he scoffs “California,” most notably after arriving at the Nakatomi Plaza party and he’s kissed by an over exuberant male guest. This is not the West of the mythic past. The true West, once the ground of testing and proving rugged manhood, has become domesticated, as John’s initial reunion with Holly underlines. In a brilliantly set-up shot-reverse-shot of Holly entering her office to discover John, the terms of their marriage are immediately laid bare – not to mention what has been keeping them apart. Holly is framed, literally, by her office door which fills the left side of the frame entirely, the metal lettering spelling out John’s trouble: H.M. Gennero Director Corporate Affairs. Holly is introduced in reference to John as a business-woman, and with her maiden name, and the use of her initials H.M. instead of her first name masks her femininity. John, meanwhile, stands framed by her office windows which capture the stunning orange sunset, alluding to the West of myth. But the sunset is partially obscured by the window blinds, one of which is almost fully closed, and a potted plant in the corner – almost assuredly fake. John stands by what appears to be the West, but it is domesticated, tame, with little “wild” in evidence. The presence, the hint, of the real West is there though, and foreshadows the importance the Western will take in the film and specifically in John’s arc.
The real marker of John’s initial position comes later, though, when Hans attempts to provoke John over the radio to reveal his identity. Hans guesses: “Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne, Rambo, Marshal Dillon?” To which John replies “I was always kind of partial to Roy Rogers, actually. I really liked those sequined shirts.” It is almost as if John acknowledges his undermined masculinity here and goes so far as to request he be addressed as Roy when Powell later asks for his nom-de-guerre. Although Roy Rogers is often referred to as “The King of Cowboys,” Rogers can really only be referred to as a cowboy in the contrived, performative sense. His TV show did feature gun and fist fights but only as a token gesture. The black and white, straightforward morality of the show had little to say about violence in earnest, aside from his dog named Bullet and his horse named Trigger – who was, quite literally, a trick pony. John’s trademark “Yippie-ki-yay” is a cowboy expression, as well as its close relative “Yippie-ki-yo”, used in several Roy Rogers songs about the pleasures of living out West. It is, though, perhaps more closely associated with Gene Autry, from the film and song Riders in the Sky (1949). The line is even used in the late 50s cartoon Quick Draw McGraw. And what they all have in common is they are all “light” versions of the cowboy compared to the gravitas of John Wayne, Gregory Peck or Gary Cooper.
In Robert Warshow’s immensely influential, and enduring, article “The Westerner” he explains that a Westerner – who is a different breed from a “cowboy” – is a man who fights “not for advantage and not for the right, but to state what he is,” and that he fights for “the purity of his own image – in fact his honour.” He is also quick to point out the difference between a cowboy like Roy Rogers and a Westerner like John Wayne: Warshow acknowledges that the image of a Westerner defending his honour “easily becomes ridiculous: we need only look at William S. Hard or Tom Mix, who in the wooden absoluteness of their virtue represented little an adult could take seriously… Gene Autry [and] Roy Rogers are no better.” If Roy Rogers belongs in California, it is John Wayne who belongs in the West, and if John wants to survive Nakatomi’s takeover and reunite with Holly he cannot stay Roy Rogers for long. The “image” or “honour” John is fighting for is his worth as a man: not only is he emasculated almost immediately and fighting to protect his marriage, the other clue to his wounded masculinity is his bare feet. Injuries and vulnerabilities to the legs and feet in film are often connotative of vulnerable masculinity: a leg or foot injury affects mobility, freedom of movement, and power, all concepts crucial to masculine prowess. John must evolve.
Underlining the fact that John undergoes a kind of evolution toward becoming a hero, is a common tag line in the trailers for the film, “John McClane didn’t want to be a hero.” It is, perhaps, not that John does not want to be a hero, but that he does not know how to become one when starting from such a disadvantaged position. John is unsure and slow to trust himself as powerful enough to deal with the situation on his own. If John is overtly out of place when he arrives in California, it is fitting that once all hell breaks loose he spends the majority of his time in liminal spaces. While he argues with Holly about what her career decision did to their marriage, John’s stripped-down look makes him stand out painfully from the ornate bathroom wallpaper and he is diminished by the bathroom door that stretches out of the frame. And when he first arrives on the 30th floor he appears woefully underdressed for the occasion. The first place John looks at ease, as if he belongs, is the floor under construction. The floor is missing the luxury of the 30th floor and is as stripped of pretence as John is. His white undershirt and grey slacks visually match the white drywall and the metal grey columns. His fitting-in here suggests what we already suspect, something in John, his sense of self-power, is also under construction. John spends most of the film in these kinds of in-between spaces that are not quite places: an elevator shaft on top of the elevator, in fire-escape stairwells, vents and duct work, squeezing between fans and the other interstitial spaces of the building, emphasizing that John is in-between two concepts of himself. The ideal concept he has yet to embody is modelled after the Westerner, and if John is being tested as a man there is no better yardstick of masculinity. For the Westerner is, mythically, the quintessential American male.
The Western references build throughout the film and provide markers of John’s transition from Rogers to Wayne. Westerns are a very strict genre, there are certain rules to be followed, and even Warshow notes that “the pattern is all.” Die Hard seems to follow the pattern of High Noon in particular. High Noon is referenced late in the film when Hans mistakenly cites John Wayne as riding off into the sunset with Grace Kelly, as John corrects, High Noon starred Gary Cooper. But High Noon is referenced throughout the entire film as John mirrors Gary Cooper’s arc. Gary Cooper plays Will Kane, a Marshal who retires after marrying Amy (Grace Kelly), a Quaker. The only trouble is that almost immediately after handing in his badge Kane is told that a man he imprisoned several years before, Frank Miller, is returning on the noon train to seek revenge. Kane faces the decision of leaving town with his new spouse, who opposes violence no matter what the justification, or risk losing his wife – and probably his own life – staying to confront Miller. Kane realizes it is his duty to protect the town from Miller and his gang as he had years before, but when Kane tries to find help from the townspeople they categorically refuse, turning their backs on him. Despite being dangerously outnumbered, in the end Kane must face Miller, and his gang, alone.
Not unlike Kane, John’s first instinct is to reach out for help. After praying that Argyle heard gunshots and is phoning the police, John’s first real act of offence is defence: he pulls the fire alarm and waits for backup. Trying to flush John out of hiding, Tony, Karl’s brother, offers John a prophecy: “The fire has been called off, my friend. No one is coming to help you.” John does not yet recognize the truth in Tony’s words and continues to seek help as he takes Tony’s walkie-talkie to the roof and attempts to make a 911 transmission. The 911 operators assume John is making a prank call and their outrageous incompetency exaggerates the sense that there is, indeed, no help coming. Even when Powell shows up at the tower to investigate, the “reluctant hero” in John bemoans “Where’s the fuckin’ cavalry?” indicating his initial instinct to defer responsibility.
John finally seems to get help after throwing a dead body onto Sgt. Powell’s car to convince him there is, in fact, a real problem: “Welcome to the party, pal!” But even then the cavalry don’t prove to be the saviours John is counting on. While John finds a loyal and clever partner in Powell, the LAPD don’t relieve John from his post. Once the whole department shows up Powell tells John, effectively, his job is done: “L.A.’s finest are on it, so light ’em if you got ’em.” Although John is eager to shrug off the responsibility, he recognizes the police are not going to solve the crisis when they make it clear they will not heed John’s intelligence. At the first sign the police are about to make an offensive move, John reiterates his earlier warning: “Jesus Christ, you’re coming in, that’s it isn’t it? Christ Powell, I told you what kind of people you’re dealing with here.” John may be too reluctant to act, but the police are too eager. When the spotlights are turned on, the SWAT leader misreads the terrorists’ reaction. The SWAT leader assumes they are in control of the situation to such a degree that he is blinded to the possibility that the opponent has any intelligence at all, not recognizing they are shooting out the lights purposefully he calmly ‘explains’ “it’s panic fire, they can’t see anything.” Unlike John, SWAT shows no respect for the enemy, and when they charge in John tellingly calls them “macho assholes.” The SWAT team are the first example in the film of the “wrong” kind of masculinity: John may be emasculated, but being a “macho asshole” is not a trait of the Westerner.
Warshow points out that in a Western “the drama is one of self-restraint: the moment of violence must come in its own time and according to its special laws, or else it is valueless.” Blind action is not what makes the man. John intuitively senses this himself as he chastises Hans for ordering the police RV to be fired upon a second time: “Hans, you motherfucker! You made your point! Let them pull back!” There is a kind of code of honour by which John evaluates acts of violence. Hans rejects John’s advice and tellingly addresses him as “Mr. Cowboy” as he does so. Die Hard seems to be asking the question of the John Wayne Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): “what kind of man are you?” Die Hard offers many potential answers, “macho asshole” being one, and John’s evolution towards becoming a Westerner is in contrast with many other masculine postures throughout the film, other “kinds” of men, which all ultimately work towards defining what constitutes real power.
With the aborted negotiation between John and Holly over the status of their marriage, issues of power surface almost immediately in the film and are then made explicit with the arrival of Hans. Upon his entrance to the party, Hans hushes the crowd to give a speech. He postures: “Due to the Nakatomi Corporation’s legacy of greed around the globe, they’re about to be taught a lesson in the real use of power. You will be witnesses.” Hans’ display of power is not “macho,” he is very much in control of his emotions, he is calm and self-assured: when Hans singles out Takagi, despite the element of threat, he introduces himself politely. Hans is also highly educated and well-read, often citing magazines he reads like Time and Forbes, and is sophisticated enough to know where Takagi bought his suit. Hans clearly equates masculine power with wealth and intellect. He takes pride in the cleverness of his plan, to the extent that he often relies on the over-confidence of others and that they will underestimate his genius: Hans rattles off “terrorist demands” but is only buying himself time. He also counts on the FBI, “regular as clockwork,” shutting off the building’s power. Hans therein exploits the blind machoism of the police by fulfilling their expectations of terrorist behaviour.
By contrast, the various police forces involved seem to be more interested in pulling rank on each other to prove they are in control than resolving the situation. All the police really have is the illusion of control. With the exception of Powell, who trusts John’s insights, Robinson is quick to doubt John and suggests he could be a terrorist (or a bartender) and does not fair much better on the scale of machoism than the SWAT leader. When SWAT prepares to charge into the building and ask Robinson’s authorization to proceed he responds, simple, “Kick ass.” Later when John asks Robinson who he is, Robinson introduces himself as “deputy chief of police Dwayne T. Robinson and I’m in charge here.” That Robinson adds in he is in charge immediately after his name suggests the extent to which he identifies with his own sense of power. While Robinson may have the credentials to say he is in charge this quickly changes when the FBI shows up and waste no time pulling rank on him in turn. Robinson introduces himself to the Agents and again offers “I’m in charge here” to which the Agents respond “Not any more.” They also add that when they commandeer Robinson’s men they would “try to let [him] know.” The Agents, not unlike the SWAT team, naively assume they are the controlling power in the equation and quickly appraise the buildings takeover as “an A-7 scenario” – easily classifiable and therefore dealt with. But they also make the mistake of not respecting John’s intel through Powell.
Ellis is another example of a masculine posture, and he too makes assumptions about power relations and does not trust John. Ellis decides to take charge by negotiating with Hans and uses John’s identity as leverage. Ellis is the embodiment of power in the corporate world; he is, in fact, a perfect 80’s yuppie complete with a cocaine habit. Ellis derives his sense of power from his business-savvy, telling Holly his credentials for dealing with Hans is that he “negotiates million dollar deals for breakfast,” and apparently, as he tells Hans, because he watches 60 Minutes. When he gets John on the radio John warns Ellis to be careful, and pleads to Hans “he doesn’t know the kind of man you are, Hans, but I do.” The web of “kinds of men” continues; while Ellis represents a certain kind of corporate power, a type of modern duel for job positions takes place between Thornburg and Harvey at the news station. Thornburg is giddy about beating other channels to the punch on the Nakatomi coverage remarking early on “Eat your heart out Channel 5.” Our introduction to Thornburg is a phone call to a love interest named Monica as he tries to prove his worth by insisting he can get into a swanky restaurant since he interviewed the chef (getting into the right restaurant was an essential display of power in the 1980’s). Thornburg seems to embody the cliché “dog eat dog” as the food associations continue: when Harvey tries to remind Thornburg of his rank at the station, telling him “give us a break, Thornburg,” Thornburg quips “Eat it, Harvey.”
The thread running through all of these various postures is that each man defines himself in reference to what he can control, dominate, or overtake. John, in contrast, is not concerned with making grand expressions of his abilities, nor should he be. Warshow notes “the Westerner is a more classical figure, self-contained and limited to begin with, seeking not to extend his dominion but only to assert his personal value.” Any “proof” or power that lies outside of the self proves to be false. These “false” modes of power, though, are not simply undermined in contrast to John. Characteristic of 80’s action films, Die Hard has an immensely clever, even tragic, sense of irony, as all of these displays of masculine power sabotage themselves.
Every masculine posture proves to be incongruent with the actual extent of each individual’s authority. No one is immune to this undercutting, even the TV expert who “educates” the audience about the “Helsinki syndrome.” When Harvey tries to contribute “As in Helsinki, Sweden” the expert corrects him, noting Helsinki is in Finland. Harvey seems deflated, but so is the expert. Not only is the real syndrome he is referring to “Stockholm syndrome,” as in Stockholm, Sweden, as he describes the “camaraderie” that is “now forming” between the hostages and the terrorists, the film cuts to the reality: Ellis’s dead body is being dragged from the office and the “camaraderie” looks a little more like terror and fatigue in the quiet hostages looking on. Ellis himself is killed because his cockiness about negotiating million dollar deals for breakfast and assuming Hans is simply “euro-trash” breeds a kind of naivety in him. He is actually surprised when Hans threatens to kill him: “What am I a method actor? Hans, babe, put away the gun this is radio not television.”
Thornburg is dealt a lighter punishment, he might get the jump on every other television station but he is humiliated when Holly punches him live on air after asking the remarkably pedestrian question “What are your feelings now that it’s all over,” posturing as some kind of expert in human trauma. Robinson also loses his illusion of control, not only does John have to intervene to save the LAPD’s men, John corrects Robinson’s insistence that he is in control: “Oh you’re in charge? Well I got some bad news for you Dwayne, from up here is doesn’t look like you’re in charge of jack shit.” The FBI agents again reinforce this when they respond to his weak “I’m in charge here” with a curt “Not anymore.” The FBI agents in turn run their “terrorist play book play-by-play” thinking they are in control and their display of “authorization” from “the United States fucking government” to turn off Nakatomi’s power have them putting on airs that the terrorists are pissing their pants in fear and “sweating it out” because the lights are out when really they have helped Hans open the vault. This turns more serious later when their plan to give the terrorists “fully armed” helicopters “right up the ass” is again not only what Hans is counting on but gets the agents killed.
Nor is Hans himself immune. Foreshadowing his ultimate defeat, there is an early clue that Hans may not be quite as clever as he appears: one of his most famous lines, “And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer,” which he proudly explains is the benefit of “a classical education,” is actually a gross misquote of Plutarch. The real line being almost the opposite: “When Alexander heard from Anaxarchus of the infinite number of worlds, he wept … ‘Is it not a matter for tears that, when the number of worlds is infinite, I have not conquered one?'” It is no mistake that Hans’s quote mirrors his own false perception: Hans’s version of Plutarch suggests he, the stand-in for Alexander, has conquered the world, when in reality he has conquered nothing. Holly makes this clear when she realizes Hans’s goal was simply to rob the company’s vault: “After all your posturing, all your little speeches, you’re nothing but a common thief.”
John, by contrast, is not so much undermined as he is stifled from the beginning. Hans may accuse him of acting like Marshal Dillon and John Wayne but, at least to begin with, Roy Rogers’ sequined shirt fits. To the question “what kind of man are you?” the film is not looking for a “macho asshole” who “kicks ass” and pulls rank. A real man does not seek power outside of himself in wealth and sophistication, like Hans, or official authority like the police and the FBI, or the trappings of the corporate world like Ellis. A real man, the Westerner, John Wayne, not Roy Rogers, “fights not for advantage and not for the right, but to state what he is.” When it becomes clear to John that he can no longer defer the responsibility of action to others, his reluctance to heroism subsides: after all, as Tom (John Wayne) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance affirms, slapping his gun holster: “Out here a man settles his own problems.” In order to keep an eye on the police activity outside, Hans has a small TV brought into Holly’s office. Foreshadowing the moment John’s transformation begins, when the TV is turned on a Western is playing. John spots SWAT in trouble and hears Hans is about to “hit them again,” and when he cannot persuade Hans to let SWAT pull back, John must intervene. The first moment of true action John takes, it is his turning point in earnest.
To neutralize Hans, John creates a small bomb with C4, a detonator and a computer screen and drops it down an elevator shaft offering the war cry “Geronimo, motherfucker!” Significantly, Geronimo is a ubiquitous name in Westerns. The name of a famous native chief, Geronimo became a prominent figure in Western films including Stage Coach, which stars John Wayne, Broken Arrow, and Gunsmoke: The Last Apache, the second feature based on the TV series whose protagonist is Marshal Dillon. John succeeds in quieting both sides for the moment, but he also takes his first step decidedly out of the Roy Rogers category and towards Wayne’s by relying on himself. Almost immediately John loses the name Roy when Ellis reveals John’s identity to Hans. Robinson, meanwhile, becomes furious when Ellis is killed but Powell defends John, explaining to Robinson “The man is hurting. He’s alone, he’s tired, and he hasn’t seen diddley-squat from anybody down here.” But this is the position from which John can become himself. Following the pattern of High Noon in which Kane too first seeks help, both Kane and John learn that a man must act alone in order to define his image and defend his honour. Deferral is not a rule of the duel, but acting alone is not enough. While the other men in the film try to gain the upper hand by expanding their exterior markers of power, John, who’s moving inward toward his real power, is stripping. But exposing John’s vulnerabilities is not intended to undercut his masculinity, rather it is intended to relieve John of all that is unnecessary, to convince him that he must trust himself.
Soon after John arrives at Nakatomi he removes his coat, shirt, shoes and socks. Eventually his undershirt becomes so dirty it is green, and later loses his undershirt too. In addition, the “liminal spaces” John so often inhabits suggest a kind of stripping as well. John is out of place in the ornate 30th floor and by the time he does return it is blown half way to hell. The spaces he looks most at ease in are minimal, small, are difficult to manoeuvre (they make him feel like a TV dinner), and offer no advantage other than to keep him hidden. But this too is typical of the process of becoming a Westerner, as Warshow suggests, “the true theme of the Western movie is not the freedom and expansiveness of frontier life, but its limitations … We are more likely to see the Westerner struggling against the obstacles of the physical world … then carelessly surmounting them.” John is not just being stripped; he appears as if he’s being turned inside out. He does not just struggle against his environment, but eventually against his own body as well. Instead of clothes his body becomes coated in a thick mixture of dirt, sweat, and blood. He is forced to walk over shattered glass and begins to bleed profusely from one of his exposed feet, leaving a trail of blood wherever he goes. He survives a fight with Karl but only after his shoulder is grazed by a bullet and he takes a brutal beating. Where is our Roy Rogers now? John no longer sparkles, he strains. No sequined shirt, no shirt at all. John has been physically abused to his limit and it shows. When the confrontation with Hans finally does arrive, on the surface it doesn’t look like a fair fight. John is within an inch of death and Hans is still dressed impeccably in his designer suit, not a hair out of place. But this is not a fair fight: it is a duel.
Hans tries to deride John for still being a cowboy, and threatens that John Wayne will not get to ride off into the sunset with Grace Kelly, but therein he exposes his weakness. John retorts “that was Gary Cooper, asshole,” referencing of course High Noon at the precise moment he has stepped into High Noon‘s climax and embodied Kane’s solitude. John invites Hans into the duel by suggesting Hans would “have made a pretty good cowboy.” Hans even tries to appropriate John’s “yippie ki yay, motherfucker.” But Hans is not the right kind of man: he is not a Westerner. And John, though he began as the wrong kind of Westerner, is the right kind now. If a man stands on his own two feet, John stands despite his. As one of the film’s trailer’s reiterates, John is “an easy guy to like, and a hard man to kill” – he is a guy until he has been tested, and he is literally a man because he can be beaten within an inch of death. John embodies the title “Die Hard”: being difficult to kill, facing death and surviving, is the essential ingredient that makes you a man. As Warshow suggests, this is the Westerner’s virtue too: “it is not violence at all which is the ‘point’ of the Western movie, but a certain image of a man, a style, which expresses itself most clearly in violence.” Referencing Gary Cooper specifically, Warshow suggests he is suited to the Western genre as Cooper seems to “bear in his body and his face mortality, limitation, the knowledge of good and evil.” John, now, does too.
Thus John can now properly be reunited with Holly, who in tandem with John regaining a certain element of masculinity, has regained some femininity as her unbuttoned shirt reveals cleavage. However, John’s brilliant gun slinging did not kill Hans outright. Holly must give up her company watch to do that. It is obvious to read this moment as anti-feminist, putting Holly, the once tough business woman in her place now that John has reclaimed his place as a man. But there is something insidiously easy about this. While John pulls glass shards from his wounded foot he asks Powell to give Holly a message: “Tell her it took me a while to figure out what a jerk I’ve been, but, um, that, that when things started to pan out for her, I should have been more supportive, and, uh, I just should have been behind her more … She’s heard me say ‘I love you’ a thousand times. She never heard me say ‘I’m sorry.’… tell her that John said that he was sorry.” The blind machoism the film goes to such lengths to undermine would never allow this kind of insight. And later, when John introduces Holly to Powell he uses her maiden name: “This is my wife Holly, Holly Gennero.” It is Holly who chooses to reclaim the name McClane. Once Holly’s watch is lost John and Holly embrace and kiss and it is the first time they share a frame in earnest. If you compare this shot to their earlier meeting it speaks volumes. Early on they hug tentatively at the edge of the frame, and the only other shot they share has Ellis and Takagi standing between them. In their bathroom argument John desperately tries to relate to Holly as a husband, but Holly is more interested in relating to him as a business-woman. Their shared frame highlights their solidarity, not because Holly has been put in her place, but because her career is no longer an issue in their marriage. Her career will no longer interrupt and stand between them, it does not mean Holly has been sidelined.
Besides, there is something far more corrupting and oppressive of men going on here. There is another man in the film trying to redeem his battered masculinity: John’s trusting Powell. Like John, Powell’s initial condition is less than ideally masculine. He is an excuse for a police officer as a desk-jockey and John tells him so, when Powell ventures “You don’t think jockeying papers across a desk is a noble effort for a cop?” John is quick to reply “No.” Powell’s opinions and interpretations of the situation are not trusted by the other officers or the FBI, and even the clerk at the convenience store does not believe his wife is actually pregnant. Far more important, though, is the reason Powell has become a desk-cop: after accidentally shooting and injuring a kid he “just couldn’t bring [himself] to draw [his] gun on anybody again.” Powell finds redemption by killing the, not unlike John, “unkillable” Karl, surprising even himself. It is not just that Powell has become comfortable with using his gun again, he has become comfortable with harming the bodies of other men. After all, as Warshow emphasizes, the reason Roy Rogers and Gene Autry are absurd is “The Westerner at his best exhibits a moral ambiguity which darkens his image and saves him from absurdity; this ambiguity arises from the fact that, whatever his justifications, he is a killer of men.”
So intrinsic to masculinity is the ability to brutalize other men that, in an unfortunately deleted scene, as John realizes it was Powell who shot Karl he affirms: “Just like riding a bike.” After all, it is John’s brutalized body that becomes the sign of his true power and value as a man. As Holly helps John walk out of the tower, Powell says to her “You got yourself a good man.” The strength of a man is measured by the extent his body can be abused and survive, but also the extent to which he can abuse the bodies of other men. The strong male body does not come to symbolize power, not really. Die Hard, almost perfectly, exposes the tragedy of masculinity: in the end a man’s body symbolizes male death, and ultimately his own. This is the real mortality Gary Cooper and John McClane carry in their face and body. It is the awareness of their disposability that makes them the “right kind of man.” In direct proportion to the vulnerability of their bodies is the invulnerability of their honour. And it is this that makes John a Westerner.
Why Westerns? And why in 1988? After all, Westerns had long gone out of fashion in the mainstream sense. Heaven’s Gate from 1980 is widely held as the last nail in the Western coffin. Even The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which came more than 25 years before Die Hard, is very much about the end of the West. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance grieves that there is no longer a place for the Westerner in the world. But to the question “Why?” the film gives us some subtle clues. When John takes up his nom-de-guerre of Roy, between references to famous cowboys, Hans slyly slips in the name “Rambo,” and later when the FBI agents are riding in the helicopter, the older one remarks “Yaa-ha! Just like fucking Saigon, hey slick?” So why Westerns in 1988? Vietnam.
Much of the exaggerated masculinity and heroism so characteristic of 80’s action films is compensating for the unstable masculinity that emerged following the American defeat in Vietnam. Unlike any other decade in action films, in balance with the exaggerated machoism, they also carried a high degree of self-conscious irony and Die Hard is no exception. Rambo is a Vietnam veteran with PTSD and, as Susan Jeffords suggests in her work on the Vietnam War in American film, “[First Blood] inaugurated a cultural shift in the ways in which American audiences thought about the Vietnam War and the men who fought in it.” While John is not a Vietnam vet, Vietnam is still vital to understanding the film’s ideas about heroism and masculinity. Consider Eric Lichtenfeld’s analysis of John’s trademark “Yippie ki yay, motherfucker”: “[John] assumes the mantle of America’s archetypal heroes: Roy Rogers, John Wayne, Gunsmoke’s Marshal Dillon, and others who have been so vital to American boyhood. Unlike the many action-movie one-liners that are rooted in the hero’s narcissism, McClane’s stems from our collective wish-fulfilment. He is not referring to himself, not suggesting an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ but an us … In John McClane’s stance, there lies a bravado that bridges two American traditions. ‘Yippie-ki-yay’ summons America’s mythic, gunfighter past, while ‘motherfucker’ belongs to the modern action movie.” Lichtenfeld lumps Roy Rogers and John Wayne into the same category of “American boyhood” wish-fulfilment without recognizing the transformation John makes from Rogers to Wayne and the brutal beating this process requires. Being John Wayne comes with a heavy toll – there is little wish-fulfilment here. Lichtenfeld also misses what came between the classic Westerns and the modern action movie: the war.
After Vietnam, the heroism of John Wayne was no longer possible, at least as previously understood. The Green Berets (1968), which starred John Wayne, was a film made about Vietnam early on before the un-winnable reality had set in. In fact, new recruits routinely screened The Green Berets before going on active duty. As Jeffords points out: “The US Army often showed The Green Berets to soldiers when they first arrived in Vietnam, reinforcing a set of images about the war and the Vietnamese people to the American soldiers who would fight that war… For many Americans, The Green Berets typified the values and expectations that they had about the Vietnam War and how it would be fought.” In addition, many soldiers early on identified with Wayne’s kind of heroism, as quoted in Jeffords: “I had flash images of John Wayne films with myself as the hero”; “I was John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima.” But this could not last. Gustav Hasford’s novel The Short Timers underlines how drastically this opinion shifted: “The grunts laugh and threaten to pee all over themselves. This is the funniest movie we have seen in a long time … The sun is setting in the China Sea – in the East – which makes the end of the movie as accurate as the rest of it.” This is likewise mirrored in Die Hard, as the FBI agent’s comment about Saigon is played with an exaggerated bravado that mirrors the Green Berets-era enthusiasm, and, as it turned out, naivety. The awareness of how impossible this kind of mindless machoism is, especially towards Vietnam, is precisely what makes the line so funny. In fact, it is met with the brilliant “I was in junior high, dickhead,” a direct assault on the line’s sentiment of invulnerable machoism. And as if to reinforce this, in the script the agents are cheekily referred to as Big Johnson and Little Johnson.
This kind of macho attitude is simply no longer viable. In fact it is a vulnerability: not only do the agents’ non-questioned tactics aid Hans, it gets them killed. After Vietnam the male hero in American culture no longer has the luxury of being right because he says so, or just because he is John Wayne: this is why John must pay such a physically heavy toll to earn Wayne’s mantle, for with Vietnam came the painful awareness of defeat. It was, literally, the death of heroism. Die Hard uses the Western to save a classic image of the American hero, partially as another step towards cultural healing from the trauma of Vietnam on the American psyche and America’s concept of its own power, but can only do so ironically, imperfectly. After all, John’s victory comes with the line “Happy trails, Hans” – another reference to Roy Rogers (“Happy Trails” was one his most highly charted songs). Nor does the Westerner fully defeat Hans. Die Hard ultimately walks a gravely delicate line between celebrating masculine heroism and mourning its cost; between reinforcing an undefeated sense of male power, and realizing that male power, both its failure and its incarnation, is so often death.