I'm about to not only suck the fun out of one of the most beloved and accomplished American action films ever made, but also suggest the all-American money making machine that is Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) is actually thinly veiled communist propaganda. Sorry about that.
I've always thought that Die Hard made a nice parallel to the works of Karl Marx. It is a story about a working class hero who, along with many other innocents, is thrust into peril by a battle between capitalists. Our hero then has to rise up, quite literally, and overthrow (or indeed throw over) one such capitalist and as he falls to the floor his bag of money splits distributing his wealth to the working men and women below.
Whenever I've talked about this half-baked theory it's always been something of a semi-joke. I mean this is Die Hard, the seminal representation of American might against euro-trash nancies made during a period of immense western greed. Yet having read over some of Marx's writings I couldn't help but notice that the similarities are shared right down to the fine details. Let me attempt to sum up Marx's ideas in a woefully inadequate word count:
Marx believed that the driving force of humanity was to make ourselves better through the application of hard work, or labour. Yet with the rise of capitalism humankind was forced to abandon working for self betterment and instead made to sell its labour to help feed the economy. While those that owned the industrial complexes, factories and businesses (the bourgeoisie) reaped the financial benefits those that were selling off their labour (the proletariat) were left with just enough to survive and a lifetime of making other people richer. This, Marx argues, perverted the very thing that defined humanity. The proletariat, therefore, found themselves in a de-humanising downward cycle, while the bourgeoisie just got richer and richer.
“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
“I'm a New York cop. I got a six-month backlog on New York scumbags I'm still trying to put behind bars. I can't just pick up and go that easy.” John McCLane, chatting with Argyle and a giant stuffed bear.
John McClane is very much a definitive proletarian. Although the Police can be seen in some respects as part of the authority controlled by the bourgeoisie, in the fantasy of film the cop is a heroic, noble profession, normally driven by a natural instinct for liberty even if pursuing it breaks the laws set by the ruling power. In that respect, the movie cop is a revolutionary character.
Yet McClane talks about his work as if it's a desk job, stripped of all its nobility and purpose and reduced to nothing more than a pile of paperwork. McClane is somewhat tired, as if life has rung the drive out of him then thrown him to the sink with the other dried flannels. He is also out of place in the world of money and technology he finds himself in.
“This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
“Cute toy” John McClane, confused by touch screen
Nakatomi plaza is a gleaming monument that celebrates financial gain. Models of worldwide projects (the detrimental effects on indigenous populations are explicitly referenced later on in the film) while the luxurious offices are filled with burgeoning capitalists, who are in most cases proletariat hoping to chum up to those in power. We'll get to that in a moment.
When McClane is faced with this strange soulless world he is immediately confused, disorientated and then, to kick him when he is down, has his nose rubbed in the fact that he is of a lower status by Ellis, the typical hairy, money grabbing, coke-faced dick monkey (my words, not Marx's). And in front of McClane's wife no less. Ah, the wife...
“The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation into a mere money relation.” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
“No matter the consequences, no matter what it did to our marriage, you had to take this opportunity” John McClane, digging a hole for himself.
The McClane marriage is a mess. Driven by the desire for a career, Holly changes her name, takes the kids and moves states to the sunny horizons of California, leaving John wallowing in the filthy crime-ridden streets of New York. The requirement to earn money has driven this family apart and exposes McClanes inadequacy as a romantic (a skill not able to produce any kind of commodity and therefore not developed), yet he cannot help but see that the seductive lure of capitalism may steal his wife faster than his insensitivity can drive her away. And that is when all hell breaks loose.
“The bourgeoisie finds itself involved in a constant battle. At first with the aristocracy; later on, with those portions of the bourgeoisie itself” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
“You got some bad-ass perpetrators and they're here to stay” John McClane, stating the obvious.
Hans Gruber and his gang of mercenaries bust into Nakatomi Towers and, under the guise of politicised freedom fighters, attempt one of the most audacious corporate take-overs in history. I had trouble placing Gruber in Marx's writings at first but eventually I found a passage that summed him up.
“In this way arose feudal socialism: half lamentation, half lampoon; half an echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart's core, but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history”
The feudal socialist is a throw-back to the aristocracy that suffered in the formation of the new economy system. They often attack the bourgeoisie but under the guise of a more noble pursuit, in many cases pretending to fight for the proletariat. It's obvious Gruber is from a family used to luxury and, to some degree, pomposity. Yet just as obviously he is in a position requiring quick cash, rather than money earned or inherited. He does this under the pretence of a revolutionary group attempting to free political prisoners and as Holly points out, for all his posturing he is just a common thief.
Importantly this highlights the desire to attain status. Both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are classifications that denote the capacity for political action, yet between those bookends sit those trying to attain status. These are the people that, unable to attain any real shift in meaningful political power, instead attempt to merely appear more important through the acquisition of money and some small authority. This can be seen in the staff at Nakatomi towers, as mentioned earlier, but is studied in greater detail in the law enforcement offices on the streets below.
Special Agents Johnson and Johnson have acquired the most status. They are of course beholden to the same laws as everyone else and no doubt will have a superior of their own to give them shit, so they revel in the authority over the rest of the ground crews their status permits. Strutting around in their suits they order city engineers to cut off the power to whole blocks and smugly put down the efforts of both McClane and the rest of the Police force.
Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson is a man desperate for status. Constantly aghast at the damage to bourgeoisie property and ready to suck up to the agents at every possible turn, he is a pathetic creature so devoid of soul that he now looks to how he can improve his lot in life by distancing himself from the proletariat and snuggling up to those whom seem more important than he. He is the dehumanised cog in the capitalist machine that Marx feared the workers would turn into.
At the other end of the scale is Sgt. Al Powell. This man is who John McClane used to be. Bright, enthusiastic, optimistic, possibly naïve. With a new baby on the way he is ready to settle down into his job behind a desk, making money to support his family (not yet divided by the pressures of selling labour) and gradually become absorbed into the machine the way Dwayne no doubt was. Luckily for him, McClane eventually shows him the necessity for decisive action.
“The bourgeoisie... in all these battles... sees itself compelled to appeal to the proletariat, to ask for help, and thus to drag it into the political arena... it furnishes the proletariat with weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie.” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
“Now I have a machine gun, ho ho ho” John McClane, dead man's jumper.
Using weapons and explosives pilfered from the invading money-grabbers McClane scurries through the dirty metal service tunnels that spread through the building like veins and lurks in the maintenance rooms reserved for workers, subverting their segregative function and using them instead as tools to rise up against the bourgeoisie. Joining forces with the true members of the proletariat (Powell and Holly) McClane seeks to destroy the very foundations essential to the survival of the bourgeoisie.
“The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society... They have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.” Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
“I'm gonna kill you! I'm gonna fuckin' cook you, and I'm gonna fucking eat you! ” John McClane, fucking someone's shit up.
Marx saw the only way to abolish the bourgeoisie was to not only tear down its foundations but ensure no minority took back control. Thereby distribution of wealth and power was essential. Gruber's stolen money is flung into the night sky to float to the waiting emergency services below.
Wealth successfully distributed.
Those that chose to pursue status right to the end are either humiliated (or "butt-fucked on national TV"), or incinerated in a ball of fire. And what of Gruber? He is felled by a rolex watch, perhaps the ultimate symbol of eighties greed and an overt message that the commodities capitalists fetishise are the very things that will cause their undoing.
“Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker”... Marx's sentiments exactly.
I'm unsure as to whether Roderick Thorp, the writer of the book the film was based on, screen writer Steven De Souza or Director John McTiernan had any major left-wing ideals but then that's not really the point of this piece. Whether Die Hard is or isn't a reflection of Marx's communist manifesto is irrelevant. What is important is that it highlights quite why Die Hard is such a critically acclaimed film. For all its blood and thunder, it is a densely layered piece offering rewards for those willing to look for them.
Whether it is left-wing, homoerotic, satirical or just plain thrilling, It will always be a masterpiece of American cinema.