While channel surfing with a friend of mine a couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon the beginning of Die Hard – a particular favourite of mine. The adventures of John McClane and his constant irritation at bad guys always popping up to ruin his day never gets old. However I found watching the film with my new found critical eye and gender stereotype awareness, that there were certain themes and motifs rife throughout this seemingly shallow action film. Throughout the film there is a re-occurance of the celebration of the ‘working class hero’ with the middle to upper class white collar worker oscillating between the butt of the joke or the one who comes close to letting the bad guys win the fight.
From the moment we are introduced to John McClane his class and masculinity are defining traits of his character and are quickly established as the ‘proper’ male ideal. Unlike the rich men in suits that pervade his wife’s workplace, McClane is the working class cop whose unassuming demeanor and basic vest-and-no-shoes ensemble set him up as the antithesis of the wealth and privilege that surrounds him. Throughout the film, as it become apparent that McClane is the only one who can save the day, he becomes increasingly bloodied and rugged with his absence of shoes being repeatedly referred to – putting him at odds with the helpless Versace loafers being held hostage in the foyer.
This class conflict is also played out outside the building in the stand-off between Reginald Veljohnson’s Sgt. Powell, the lowly street cop who believes in McClane and his ability to save the hostages, and Paul Gleason’s Deputy Police Chief who insists on taking over the operation and nearly winds up ruining everything. Powell and McClane’s similar socio-economic backgrounds help them bond and trust each other and in the end, both of them get a chance to save the day.
The triumph of the working class hero over the white collar pencil pusher is encapsulated in one of the final scenes of the film. With McClane, his wife Holly and the nefarious Hans Gruber all dangling perilously from the side of the remains of Holly’s workplace, McClane must make the decision to save himself and his wife and let Gruber fall to his death. In order to do this they must release him from the only thing keeping him from his fatal descent – the expensive Rolex watch given to Holly by her slimy executive admirer at the beginning of the film. With the release of the watch, we see both it and Gruber fall into an inferno. With this sacrifice of the expensive watch, Holly has officially relinquished the allure of the wealth that previously surrounded her, only to end up happily ever after with her masculine hero.
Although it could be argued that Die Hard as an action film was inherently going to celebrate all things masculine, I think there is something to be said about the masculinity it celebrates. We do not have the usual beautiful and toned action hero; instead we have a weary cop with no shoes and a wife beater. McClane’s original brand of hyper-masculine heroics make him an easy figure to root for throughout the film and a poster boy for all of the “man’s man” action heroes that would follow.
All images sourced through Google Images.