The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

‘Happy Trails, Hans’: What Is Everybody’s Favorite Christmas Movie Really About?

Posted on | December 25, 2020 | 2 Comments

My brother and I celebrated Christmas Eve by watching Diehard together. The movie suffers from all the usual suspension-of-disbelief problems common to action films — e.g., automatic weapons that fire an impossibly large number of bullets without changing magazines — there is no doubt that Diehard is a Christmas movie. And this is not just my opinion, but has been stated directly by the director John McTiernan.

Strangely enough, while finally settling the debate over whether Diehard is a Christmas movie, McTiernan provoked another controversy, saying that the movie was intended as anti-capitalist propaganda. Although I shouldn’t have to include “spoiler alerts” for a 1988 film — the Bruce Willis character John McClane triumphs over the villain Hans Gruber — a discussion of the plot is necessary to understand the left-wing perspective of Diehard which nobody seemed to notice until it was pointed out by the director. The movie is based on a 1979 novel by Roderick Thorp. Wikipedia describes the plot of Nothing Lasts Forever:

Retired NYPD detective Joe Leland is visiting the 40-story office headquarters of the Klaxon Oil Corporation in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, where his daughter Stephanie Leland Gennaro works. While he is waiting for his daughter’s Christmas party to end, a group of German Autumn–era terrorists take over the skyscraper. The gang is led by the brutal Anton “Little Tony the Red” Gruber. Joe had known about Gruber through a counter-terrorism conference he had attended years prior. Barefoot, Leland slips away and manages to remain undetected in the gigantic office complex. Aided outside only by Los Angeles Police sergeant Al Powell and armed with only his police-issue pistol, Leland fights off the terrorists one by one in an attempt to save the 74 hostages, and his daughter and grandchildren.
The terrorists plan to steal documents that will publicly expose the Klaxon corporation’s dealings with Chile’s junta. They also intend to deprive Klaxon of the proceeds of the corrupt deal by dumping $6,000,000 in cash out of the tower’s windows. Leland not only believes their claims, but also that his daughter is involved.
Leland kills eleven of the terrorists, but in the end he fails to save his daughter, who falls to her death with Gruber after he was shot by Leland. Blaming Klaxon for the terrorist attack, Leland throws the cash out of the window himself. As Leland is leaving the building, the last terrorist Karl, who was presumed dead earlier, returns and starts a shooting rampage, killing the police chief Dwayne Robinson in the process, before Powell finally kills him.

This requires a brief history lesson: What is “German Autumn”?

The German Autumn (German: Deutscher Herbst) was a series of events in Germany in late 1977 associated with the kidnapping and murder of industrialist and businessman Hanns Martin Schleyer, president of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations (BDA) and the Federation of German Industries (BDI), by the Red Army Faction (RAF) far-left militant organisation, and the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 (known in Germany by the aircraft’s name, Landshut) by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). They demanded the release of ten RAF members detained at the Stammheim Prison plus two Palestinian compatriots held in Turkey and US$15 million in exchange for the hostages. The assassination of Siegfried Buback, the attorney-general of West Germany on 7 April 1977, and the failed kidnapping and murder of the banker Jürgen Ponto on 30 July 1977, marked the beginning of the German Autumn. It ended on 18 October, with the liberation of the Landshut, the death of the leading figures of the first generation of the RAF in their prison cells, and the death of Schleyer.

So what Thorp’s novel imagines is this left-wing European terrorism making its appearance in the United States. Anyone old enough to remember the 1970s recognized that the Hans Gruber character was inspired by Germany’s Red Army Faction, a Communist revolutionary group otherwise known as the Baader–Meinhof Gang (allow me to recommend Hitler’s Children as introductory reading on this subject).

Younger audiences know nothing of Baader-Meinhof and the larger context of violent left-wing radicalism during the Cold War (e.g., the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Black Liberation Army) and so the Hans Gruber character makes no sense at all to them. Also, notice that the 1979 novel has the corporate villain as an oil company involved in corrupt dealings with “Chile’s junta,” another historical reference that will be lost on younger audiences who don’t know anything about Augusto Pinochet. Of course, Chile has never been a significant source of petroleum, but never mind that. The point is that the novel’s plot had a built-in anti-capitalist message — American corporations profiting from corrupt deals with foreign dictators — that somehow wasn’t anti-capitalist enough to suit the director of Diehard.

Now, let’s hear from the director on the changes he made:

“Joel Silver sent me the script three, four times. And it was about these horrible leftist terrorists that come into the sort of Valhalla of capitalism, Los Angeles, and they bring their guns and their evil ways and they shoot up people just celebrating Christmas, terrible people, awful. And it was really about the stern face of authority stepping into put things right again, you know? And I kept saying to Joel, I don’t want to make that,” he said.
McTiernan said he used “It’s A Wonderful Life” as a source of inspiration for the direction he wanted the movie to go, primarily its critique on unfettered capitalism.
“I went to Joel. And I said, ‘Okay, if you want me to make this terrorist movie, I want to make it where the hero in the first scene when the limo driver apologizes that he’s never been in a limo before,” he said. “The hero says it’s alright. I’ve never ridden in a limo before. Okay, working class hero.”
“And Joel understood what I meant. And he said okay. And so we started to work on it,” he continued. “And in fact, everybody, as they came to work on the movie began to get, as I said, this idea of this movie as an escapee. And there was a joy in it. Because we were, we’ve had changed the content. And that is how ‘Die Hard’ became, we hadn’t intended it to be a Christmas movie, but the joy that came from it is what turned it into a Christmas movie. And that’s really the best I can tell you about it.”

That’s just . . . crazy.

By 1988, it was entirely commonplace for groups of middle-class teenagers to rent limousines for their prom dates. Making a limo ride a symbol of evil capitalism — a point of honor for the “working class hero” that he had never ridden in a limousine — is a childish gesture. Insofar as the limousine symbolizes luxurious decadence, this is not something that the average American thinks much about, either to resent or to envy.

To a mature and intelligent person, there is no sinister mystery surrounding wealth and the symbolic trappings of wealth. We don’t need a paranoid Marxist conspiracy theory to explain why some people are richer than others and, unless we are suffering from some deficit of self-esteem, we are not awed by the show-off gestures of people who are so crass as to flaunt their wealth. Some people are impressed (and seek to impress others) with name brands, as if a pair of jeans or a purse were inherently more valuable because it was emblazoned with a designer’s logo, and we have a word for such people: Fools.

Did I ever mention that I once worked in the men’s wear department of a major retailer? When you’re getting a 25% employee discount even off the “sale” price of clothing, it gives you some idea of what how much retail mark-up is paid by fools who think they’re getting a bargain on some fancy brand-name merchandise. My shirts were Pierre Cardin and my ties were Ralph Lauren, but I sure as hell never paid the retail price.

Genuinely rich people are seldom ostentatious about their wealth. One of the reasons so many people hate Donald Trump so much — even before he got into politics, they hated him for it — is because he was always so ostentatious, which offends our Christian sensibilities. It is cruel for the rich man to flaunt his wealth in the face of the less fortunate. Envy is a sin, and when someone makes a point of showing off their wealth, they are inspiring sinful resentments in others, much the same as the woman who dresses like a slut is sinfully inciting lust. It is one thing to appreciate the finer things in life, to be grateful for the rewards of success, and an entirely different thing to engage in behavior intended to humiliate others by flaunting in their faces those luxuries they cannot afford.

Is mere accumulation of material possessions the whole purpose of life? Should we evaluate others solely on what brand of shoes they wear?


I’ve described this “cargo cult” mentality toward wealth and the status symbols associated with wealth. Even if you work honestly to get rich, it is a mistake — indeed, a sin — to become obsessed with the material symbols of wealth, but we see this most plainly in how criminals ostentatiously display their ill-gotten gains:

After two days of jury trial, an Ashburn [Virginia] woman pleaded guilty [in October 2018] to wire fraud, money laundering, conspiracy to impersonate a federal agent to demand money, and obtaining confidential phone records.
According to court documents and the evidence at trial, Keisha L. Williams, 43, solicited over $5.4 million from more than 50 victims by telling them that she had paid a lot of money for a certain healthcare-related software overseas in Austria; that the software was being held in “escrow” because she still owed taxes, attorney’s fees, and other debt associated with the purchase; and that if they would just give her a short-term loan to get this software out of escrow and bring it to the United States, the software would be a huge success and everyone would be quickly repaid, with interest.
In truth, Williams spent over 95 percent of the victims’ money on creating a lifestyle of luxury for herself, including millions on international travel, retail purchases at stores like Chanel and Gucci, and close to half a million on maintaining her girlfriend.

You can buy a lot of Chanel and Gucci for $5 million, but why? What is it about the pleasure of possessing a designer handbag that would make someone willing to commit federal crimes to get it?

“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

You care so much about impressing other people that you’ll perpetrate a $5 million fraud and spend it on Chanel and Gucci? Fools!

It is likewise foolish of a movie director to turn a limousine ride into a symbolic gesture about a “working class hero,” as if a character could not otherwise be heroic. Only the proletarians are worthy of admiration — that seems to be what John McTiernan meant to suggest with that bit in Diehard about John McClane never having ridden in a limo, but somehow that never registered to me as an “anti-capitalist” message.

Why would a successful movie director go through life carrying around that kind of chip-on-the-shoulder class resentment? I don’t know, and after nearly 2,000 words, I’ve probably not done much to increase anyone else’s understanding of this unfathomable mystery. In other words, I have failed in my purpose as a writer, which adequately explains why I haven’t gotten rich in this whole “journalism” racket. See, this is what people don’t want to admit — personal failure — and therefore construct warped worldviews in which they consider it wrong for other people to succeed. That’s what Marxism is about, demonizing wealth as a way to make people think of their own poverty as evidence of virtue. Such ideologies appeal only to fools, the kind of fools who don’t notice that the action-movie hero has fired hundreds of shots from a machine gun with only a 30-round magazine. But miracles happen at Christmas time, eh?

So I started out writing about Diehard, meandered off into the history of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, then went on an extended digression about the ostentatious display of wealth, and if I wasn’t such a hopeless failure as a writer, I might offer some kind of thoughtful conclusion here. But instead, all I can do is to wish you a Merry Christmas and remind you that the Five Most Important Words in the English Language are:


UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers!



2 Responses to “‘Happy Trails, Hans’: What Is Everybody’s Favorite Christmas Movie Really About?”

  1. FMJRA 2.0: Eastbound & Down : The Other McCain
    December 28th, 2020 @ 12:53 am

    […] ‘Happy Trails, Hans’: What Is Everybody’s Favorite Christmas Movie Really About? 357 Magnum EBL Proof Positive […]

  2. News of the Week (December 30th, 2020) | The Political Hat
    December 30th, 2020 @ 8:44 pm

    […] “Happy Trails, Hans”: What Is Everybody’s Favorite Christmas Movie Really About? My brother and I celebrated Christmas Eve by watching Diehard together. The movie suffers from all the usual suspension-of-disbelief problems common to action films — e.g., automatic weapons that fire an impossibly large number of bullets without changing magazines — there is no doubt that Diehard is a Christmas movie. And this is not just my opinion, but has been stated directly by the director John McTiernan. […]