DIE HARD ANALYSIS
by William C. Martell
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
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 equipment intriguing.
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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 happens:
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:
...Oh God please...don't kill 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 Brothers’
CAPTAIN BLOOD, where the differences between hero and villain are highlighted.
McClane and Hans are almost opposites.
McClane with his working class, blue collar background; 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
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
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.
The version of the script cited in this
article is the DIE HARD Second Revised Draft
Copyright 2002 by William