The high-quality talent of the team that brought Die Hard to the screen is well-recognized. But to many, the secret ingredient to the movie’s success was Bruce Willis and his portrayal of John McClane, an everyman police officer from New York, trapped in Nakatomi Tower at exactly the wrong time – and without even shoes on his feet. McClane takes on the role of reluctant hero to save his wife and the other innocent hostages, and defeat German terrorist-thief Hans Gruber. The McClane character has stuck in audiences’ memories ever since, and sparked a change in how action heroes are characterized. So what makes John McClane so special? How much of it is his character, how much of it is the influence of other legendary heroes before him, and how much of it is Willis bringing the role to life? 

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Full Episode Transcript

Welcome to the podcast, pal.

My name is Simone Chavoor, and thank you for joining me for Die Hard With a Podcast! The show that examines the best American action movie of all time: Die Hard.

This is episode three of the show, and I wanted to thank you all again for the amazing response we got for the last episode. I’ve been having a lot of fun talking with people about Die Hard for the podcast. First of all, the fact that people get SO EXCITED to talk about Die Hard and have SO MANY thoughts on it gets me so amped up. I’m telling you, if you’re socially awkward like me, just ask somebody what they think about Die Hard and you can have an amazing conversation for an hour and feel like you just made a new friend. Some of the folks I’ve talked to are friends I’ve had for years, and then sometimes they recommend their own friends, like, “you gotta talk to this guy, he fucking loves Die Hard,” and some have been people I’ve cold-emailed or cold-Tweeted who say yes to talking to a perfect stranger because they get to talk about Die Hard and have someone actually listen to them. And we just get to be big nerds about something we love, and it’s amazing.

And also, now everyone knows how much I love Die Hard and everyone’s sending me Die Hard things they see on the internet and I’m loving it. Like I’m a pretty easy person to figure out; if you see something that’s Star Wars, or tiki, or horror movie, or Nine Inch Nails, or pizza, or kitty cat-related online, that’s gonna make my day. But now people know that Die Hard is one of my Things I Like, so they’re passing along the best stuff. One thing a friend sent me was this sketch by the comedy troupe Baroness Von Sketch, where this lady is at a party, complaining to her friend that she can’t meet guys, and her friend says she knows a trick. She stands back and says “OH MY GOD I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU HAVEN’T SEEN DIE HARD,” and then alllll the dudes come flocking. I almost died. Except now I know why I’m single, because clearly I’m doing the EXACT OPPOSITE. But that’s okay, I’m having too good of a time lady-splaining Die Hard to you all.

Speaking of lady-splaining… I’ve had such a great response from ladies who are excited to see themselves represented in this genre. Die Hard gets thought of as a bro movie. And I am definitely not a bro.

I got an email from a listener, Cindy, who says:
I also really wanted to express how exhilarated I am that you are of the womanly persuasion. I am also a woman who loves Die Hard, and I know there are plenty of us out there, but that’s not the popular perception. I’ve dearly wanted the perspective of other women who actually enjoy the film–it seems like millennial women are either turned off by the lone-hero-cop narrative, which I understand, or see Die Hard as the ultimate annoying dudebro movie, which is frustrating. It warms my heart, like literally makes it feel all fuzzy and nice, that this podcast exists, with a woman helming the way.

Yes, girl. I absolutely feel you. And I wanted to give two quick shouts to two other women who are doing some exciting work.

Maggie Serota wrote a piece for Spin magazine titled, “How So I Married an Axe Murderer Wrecked One Writer’s Vision, Lost Several Stars, Bombed at the Box Office, and Became a Classic Anyway.” So I Married an Axe Murderer is another favorite movie of mine – Mike Meyers is so, so funny, and I have immense nostalgia for the 90s and also love any movie set in the Bay Area. Maggie wrote the piece for the movie’s 25th anniversary, but also because it’s one of her all-time favorite movies. There’ll be a link in the show notes; go check that out.

Also, Amy Nicholson, who you know from the podcasts The Canon and Unspooled, is doing an 8-part series called Halloween Unmasked for The Ringer podcast network, which is all about, obviously, the movie Halloween. I love horror movies, but Halloween was never one of my favorites, so I’m letting Amy take me away in her deep dive on the film. The podcast premiered on October 1st, so catch up on the first three episodes now.

So, if you want to send me funny links and memes about Die Hard, or if you have other suggestions for female film critics’ works, drop me a line!

And if you like this show, kick me a buck or two on Patreon. Patreon helps to offset the cost of doing this show, not just in pure dollars and cents, but for the sheer amount of time this podcast takes to put together. This is my first solo project, and although I have the wonderful, amazing support of my guests and fans, it still takes a lot of time researching, writing, recording, and editing.

Shout out to our contributors… Cindy, who sent that lovely email earlier, and Paul! And special thanks to Paul for his support, as his encouragement means a lot to me on this particular project. Thank you so much!

You can also support Die Hard With a Podcast by leaving a review on iTunes. With more starred ratings and written reviews, the show becomes more visible to other potential listeners, so please share the love and let me know what you think!

All right. On to our main topic.

When we last left off, we talked about Die Hard’s place in the 80s action movie ecosystem. How it was molded by the conventions of the genre at the time, but also how it broke the mold – and improved upon it. There was a lot that elevated Die Hard beyond a conventional, empty, popcorn-chomp of an action movie. There was the amazingly neat and efficient script, the gorgeous work of cinematographer Jan De Bont, the genius of John McTiernan’s directing. But to many, the secret ingredient was Bruce Willis and his character of John McClane.

So what makes John McClane so special? How much of it is his character, and how much of it is Willis bringing the role to life?

Let’s take a step back. Before we figure out why McClane is an iconic action movie hero, let’s talk about what makes a good hero in any story.

There’s been so much written about the Hero’s Journey, and archetypes and, well, I’m no Joseph Campbell. I think, for our purposes, we can really really really simplify it down to this: a hero is someone who is undergoing some sort of ordeal, and who is someone we root for. We root for them because we relate to them in some way, and view them with a mix of admiration and sympathy.

To contextualize things a bit, let’s look at The American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Heroes and Villains list. Now unfortunately, our John McClane didn’t make the list (although Hans Gruber came in 46th on the Villains list). But let’s look at the top 5:

1. Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
2. Indiana Jones
3. James Bond
4. Rick Blaine, Casablanca
5. Will Kane, High Noon

All men from different backgrounds, but who fall within our definition of hero. Further on in this episode, at least three of these heroes come up in comparison to John McClane. So, even though John himself doesn’t make the list, him being compared to Indiana Jones, Rick Blaine, and Will Kane on the regular, means he’s doing pretty all right.

In order to root for our hero, the audience needs to see themselves in his shoes – or lack thereof. Someone who’s perfect is unrealistic, unbelievable – and really, don’t the people who pretend to be perfect kinda bug you? But a hero with flaws, a hero who’s the underdog – we want to see them overcome their obstacles.

JEREMIAH FRIEDMAN

I’m Jeremiah Friedman, and I’m a screenwriter. Mostly working on the film side of things.

I don’t know if you can set out to create an iconic movie hero. I mean I guess you can set out to create an iconic movie hero. Some of it feels like, you know, a little bit of like lightning in a bottle. I think, you want something that hasn’t been seen before, and that feels emotionally relatable to people. They feel like they get that guy or that woman, and they just want to root for them. And I think that the original Die Hard, if we’re going old school and not 2-3-4-5, what makes McClane so compelling is he’s such an underdog you can root for the entire movie, and you just feel like he has the whole world against him.

Sasha Perl-Raver, writer, correspondent, and the host of FX’s Movie Download.

SASHA PERL-RAVER

So I think that the best heroes have to be both heroic and flawed. I mean, I think about everybody from obviously John McClane, but even to Alexander Hamilton in the Hamilton musical, you’ve got somebody who is exceptional but has this one thing that is inevitably also their downfall. When you think of even Murtaugh and Riggs in Lethal Weapon – Mel Gibson’s character, the fact that he’s so broken, he’s on the verge of psychosis. He is a great cop and an excellent fighter and has all this combat training, but also comes from this incredibly fractured place, is what makes him really interesting. I think that heroes in general have to do the things that we wish we would do, say the things we wish we would say, and somehow manage the impossible. But they have to be somebody who you either want to emulate or relate to. I think those are all the key characteristics that make a great hero.

First impressions are incredibly important, especially when meeting our hero for the first time. John McClane went through several iterations from his beginnings on the pages of a novel to the script to the screen. Let’s take a look at how McClane is introduced to us.

In the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, written by Roderick Thorp, John McClane is actually Joe Leland, a retired cop turned private detective. Far from the handsome 30-something McClane we get in the movie, Leland is an older man – if you’ll recall, Frank Sinatra was offered a chance to reprise his version of Leland from his previous film The Detective – and Sinatra was 73 years old at the time. He turned it down.

The book opens with him in the back of a cab on the way to the airport… aaand the cab has just crashed in a snowy fender-bender. There’s little physical description of Leland in the book, although we’re told he’s a “mature man” – and it makes sense, given that he’s trying to make his flight to Los Angeles to see his grown daughter and her children. But we quickly learn what kind of man Leland is. After his cab gets in an accident, Leland’s instant dislike for the driver of the station wagon his cab has hit mixes with his anxiety about missing his flight. The other man is a racist bully who tries to push the cab off the road as they try to leave – and holy shit, Leland just goes ahead and pulls his gun on him so he and his cab driver can make it to the terminal on time. But far from being a badass, Leland immediately regrets his impulsive action, and is left shaken as the adrenaline leaves him. He makes his his flight, and strikes up a flirtation with the stewardess, Kathi – spelled with an “i.” He kisses her (it’s okay, his ex-wife is long dead), and gets her number so they can meet up later. It’s actually kind of sweet.

In the script and on the screen, we meet John McClane already at the end of his flight. On the page, he’s described as “mid-thirties, good-looking, athletic and tired from his trip. He sits by the window. His relief on landing is subtle but we notice.”

The businessman next to him takes this opportunity to offer his advice about taking off his shoes and making “fists with his toes,” as we all remember. The plane finishes taxiing, and they begin to disembark.

In the first draft:

McClane is calm and reassuring as he flashes his badge and heads off the plane – after helping a lady with her bags.

In the shooting script, he’s a little more relaxed, a little cockier.

McClane is definitely more of a rascal here, a funny guy, a ladykiller. While the bit with the stewardess is pretty much cut out of the final film, let’s listen to how this scene plays out.

[CLIP – DIE HARD – McCLANE ON THE PLANE]

There’s a lot of work being done in these opening moments. It’s part of what’s so, so good about the Die Hard script. In under two minutes, we learn a lot about John McClane.

The very first thing we see is something that comes up over and over again when discussing McClane’s character: he’s vulnerable. He’s afraid of flying, and it’s noticeable enough that the guy sitting next to him feels the need to reassure him, offer him advice.

  • We also quickly learn:
  • He’s a married man with kids (from the wedding ring on his finger, the teddy bear he’s carrying, and his disinterest in pursuing things with the stewardess he locks eyes with as he exits)
  • He’s still good looking though, given the eyefuck the stewardess gives him
  • He’s a policeman from New York with over a decade of experience
  • He’s armed (I guess being armed on a plane was cool in 1988; I don’t know, I was born in ‘83 so this concept is still really weird to me)
  • He’s a bit of a wiseguy, using humor to break the tension as the businessman becomes visibly concerned over that gun

There are so many other ways that McClane could have been introduced. We could have seen him in the cab ride to the airport. We could have seen him deep in conversation with the stewardess. We could have even seen him already in Los Angeles, or even alllll the way back in New York before he even began his trip. But here, we cut right to the chase, and are shown the most important things we need to know just as the main action starts.

John McClane’s vulnerability is probably the number one character trait that comes up when discussing him. But a close second is his being “a guy.” He’s a guy, he’s a dude, he’s an everyman. He’s someone you know; he’s someone like you. He’s relatable.

JEREMIAH FRIEDMAN

He’s not super jacked up, he seems more like an ordinary guy more or less. And he’s got relatable issues. He’s got a problem with his marriage, he kind of fucked up his marriage. He’s got this blue collar job that seem pretty routine, he’s going to be crashing on a friend’s couch. He’s kind of a fish out of water, which is a big part of the movie too. He doesn’t feel anything like Los Angeles as Los Angeles as portrayed in the movie. He’s right at the Christmas party, he’s uncomfortable in the limo. Everything that gets thrown at him is outside of his comfort zone. And you are very much with him the whole movie. So you’re kind of along for the ride and on his side to a certain extent.

We’ve all been there. We’ve all hated flying, we’ve all argued with our significant others, we’ve all been at parties we don’t want to be at. We’ve been John McClane. And so when John is faced with extraordinary circumstances, it leads the audience to put themselves into John’s place and wonder what they would do. According to Vulture.com, “Die Hard is rightly situated as a visceral experience because John McClane becomes such a direct surrogate for the audience; it becomes a ‘what would you do’ scenario, and an exercise in improvisation. John McClane is a street cop, flying through this thing by the seat of his pants, just like we would.”

Scott Wampler, news editor at Birth. Movies. Death., and host of the Trying Times podcast.

SCOTT WAMPLER

And, as you already pointed out the weakness that John shows during that first movie in particular, and the fear and the indecisiveness, all of that is key to making him and every man character, but also key to making him relatable to the audience. You can absolutely imagine yourself in John McClane shoes. He definitely does some heroic shit. He does some shit that I would probably be too cowardly to do. But, also like put in that position where you’re running on adrenaline, I could feasibly imagine myself doing a lot of the stuff that John McClane does. Not beating up any like six-foot-five Russians, definitely, you know, but like the other stuff. You know, he’s wiley, he thinks on his feet, he’s a smart guy. He’s clever.

REED FISH

I’m Reed Fish, I’m a director and screenwriter.

I feel like John McClane, to me, was not an emotionally relatable character, but I feel like in the predicament that he was in, it was relatable to me because I felt like, Oh, you know, if push came to shove I could probably do those things too. Where in a typical Schwarzenegger movie, like in Predator or something, I don’t think there was ever a moment where I was like, Oh yeah I think I could do that. So I feel like John McClane is a proxy for someone who, you’re like me and you think you’re witty, you think you’re clever, you think you’re smart. Well, I certainly I could outsmart Hans Gruber. Well except I’m bigger so I don’t think I could have fit in that air shaft.

SIMONE: Well it’s a lot easier to picture yourself like I can probably move a panel on an elevator shaft, but I don’t think I could wrestle a helicopter out of the sky.

REED: Yeah, yeah, basically. And I remember in Commando, Schwarzenegger jumps off the airplane as it’s taking off, and jumps into a swamp. And you’re like, okay – not that you think he could do that, but you think yeah, I’m not going to do that. So I would have just been on the plane to South America.

As we mentioned previously, that relatability comes not just through John looking and acting realistically, but also because he’s not a perfect person. He’s fucked up.

SCOTT WAMPLER

I think John McClane’s kind of an asshole, you know, but he’s a loveable asshole, you know? When John McClane is an asshole to people, they kinda had it coming. You know what I mean? Like particularly in the case of the terrorists, but also him giving sass to Ellis, or whatever. He’s definitely more of a dick to his wife and he needs to be. But also just to speak as a devil’s advocate here we don’t – we could some of their backstory, but we don’t know everything that happened between John and Holly up until that point. I’m sure he has his own reasons to be mad, and I’m not here to judge them. But he strikes me as a likable guy. Definitely a guy I would get a beer with. I would love to ask this guy about his history and his stories. He’s personable. He’s an asshole, but he’s personable.

REED FISH

John McClane is kind of a dick. And I was quite struck by that, just how much of a dick he was in the setup of the movie, in terms of the relationship with his wife and his non-existent relationship with his kids. He’s not someone I really wanted to succeed. I did not find him sympathetic. But, that said, once it gets going, and he’s ingenious, and he’s clever, and obviously Bruce Willis at that moment had quite a lot of charisma, by the end, you are pulling for him. Even though for me, it was kind of bittersweet because you’re like, oh, he’s such a dick.

And here’s the thing: John McClane knows he’s a dick. And he hates himself for it, and he can’t get out of his own way. As John McTiernan and Bruce Willis worked on the character, they came to the realization that at his core, John McClane is a man who does not like himself very much, but is doing the best he can in a bad situation.

SASHA PERL-RAVER

In 80s action movies, again, like Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, that self-loathing is something that propels these characters to do something beyond themselves, which is sort of interesting. Like, I am not good enough to survive, so all of these other people should survive instead of me. Because any normal rational human being would not do the stuff that John McClane does, except that he feels he is not worthy of anything else. Until he jumps off the roof and ties the fire hose around his stomach and says please don’t let me die. That’s the one time where you’re like, Oh, he doesn’t have a death-wish, he’s not a complete maniac, he’s still trying to get through it. But yeah, the self-loathing is I think a great character trait.

But the key to John’s success within the plot is his flaws. The very characteristics that drive his wife, his captain, the LAPD down on the ground completely crazy are the ones that undo Hans Gruber and his plan.

Adam Sternbergh, novelist, contributing editor to New York Magazine, and pop culture journalist.

ADAM STERNBERGH

If you were to renumberate his flaws, he’s very stubborn. But then in a sense all the things that are presented as personality flaws in the beginning like his sort of pig-headedness and unwillingness to capitulate to his wife’s career decisions and things like that, they end up sort of being qualities that help him prevail because he’s just so ridiculously persistent against these terrorists.

Yep. Just being annoying is enough to start unravelling the calm, cool, collected terrorists.

So I mentioned last episode that I created a Die Hard D&D character alignment chart, because I am a huge nerd. It actually ended up being pretty helpful as I looked more into McClane’s character.

So, in case you haven’t played Dungeons and Dragons before, a character alignment chart is chart that categorizes the “ethical and moral perspectives of player characters, non-player characters, and creatures.” It helps you create a character, and gives you guidelines to how a character will behave and react to new situations. If you look at it, it’s nine squares in a three-by-three grid. Each square has a character in it along with their alignment, which is determined by where it sits on the rows and columns of the chart.

The first row is “lawful.” Using the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons rules, lawful “implies honor, trustworthiness, obedience to authority, and reliability. On the downside, lawfulness can include closed-mindedness, reactionary adherence to tradition, judgmentalness, and a lack of adaptability.”

The second row is “neutral.”

The third row is “chaotic.” This “implies freedom, adaptability, and flexibility. On the downside, chaos can include recklessness, resentment toward legitimate authority, arbitrary actions, and irresponsibility.”

Switching directions, the first column is “good.” Should be pretty self-explanatory, but, just in case, it “implies altruism, respect for life, and a concern for the dignity of sentient beings. Good characters make personal sacrifices to help others.”

The second column is “neutral.”

The third column is “evil.” This “implies harming, oppressing, and killing others. Some evil creatures simply have no compassion for others and kill without qualms if doing so is convenient or if it can be set up. Others actively pursue evil, killing for sport or out of duty to some malevolent deity or master.”

Whether or not you ever actually play D&D, I really recommend learning more about character alignments. It’s not a perfect system for creating deep, complex characters, but if you’re a writer or just a fan of storytelling, it can unlock some interesting insights.

I categorized John McClane as “chaotic good.” But Simone, you say, John McClane is a police officer! Shouldn’t he be lawful? Well, not really. He’s a police officer, yes, but we know he doesn’t always play by the rules.

[CLIP – DIE HARD – TONY AND JOHN – YOU’RE A POLICEMAN]

We know that John improvises, taking in the situation as it lies and creating ad hoc solutions just to get through, moment to moment. He doesn’t have a long-term plan other than to vaguely somehow rescue Holly and the other hostages if possible. That John is also characterized as “good” is pretty obvious. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone if he doesn’t have to, and he wants to protect his wife and other innocent people. Even if those people aren’t exactly on his side.

[CLIP – DIE HARD – JOHN TRIES TO CALL OFF THE FBI]

So how does this make John the perfect guy to defeat Hans Gruber. Well, Hans is “neutral evil.” The neutral comes from Hans having no loyalty to anyone other than himself. He’s not technically on the side of the law, but he’s also not an agent of chaos. To lend some perspective, Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T Robinson is Lawful Evil (he follows the law but in so doing fucks things up and is a total dick about it), and Karl is Chaotic Evil (he’s a wildcard, willing to disobey even Hans if it’ll get him the revenge he’s after). Hans has planned this Nakatomi takeover down to the minute. He knows everything about the building, the vault, Takagi…

[CLIP – DIE HARD – HANS FINDS TAKAGI]

… and he knows step by step what needs to be done to pull off this heist.

[CLIP – DIE HARD – HANS – I PRESENT THE FBI]

Hans has accounted for everything.

Except for one thing.

[CLIP – DIE HARD – JOHN – I WAS INVITED BY MISTAKE]

John McClane is something Hans could have never, ever predicted. I like to think that somewhere, Hans had a guest list of the entire party and had checked everyone out to some degree. But John wasn’t expected to come. Hell, even Holly wasn’t sure that John was coming – his showing up was a surprise. So the one thing that Hans couldn’t see coming, the thing that Hans doesn’t know how to predict, is the thing that completely blindsides him. John’s chaotic behavior, a liability in his marriage and everyday life, is just what’s needed to bring Hans down.

[CLIP – DIE HARD – JOHN – JUST A FLY IN THE OINTMENT]

Plus, it drives Hans – and Karl, too – completely crazy.

JEREMIAH FRIEDMAN

There’s kind of the external stuff. Like at the beginning of the movie, he’s going with a very clear mission, he’s a man on a mission, he’s a guy who wants to get his wife back. And he has no interest in any of this Nakatomi terrorism crap. And then to get his wife back, he has to deal with Hans and all these people. But he also has to overcome his own thing, which is kind of part of the genius of the movie, which is what makes him such like a difficult, crappy husband is also what makes him so problematic for Hans. He’s kind of relentless, and he stubborn, and he’s belligerent and all these things that make him – you know, in that fight scene in Holly’s office in the middle of the Christmas party, and she leaves and he knocks his head on the bathroom wall, and starts ragging on himself – and he knows he’s the problem, in a sense, but he can’t help himself. And he becomes the problem for Hans in a way that we all love. And part of the fun of that movie is he’s not just killing guys, he’s getting inside, he’s pissing them off. You know there’s the moment when they send Karl and some people after him, and then Karl comes back and destroys the bar cart, and Holly’s like, “He’s still alive.” And her secretary is like, how do you know, and she’s like, “Only John can make somebody that angry.”

But okay: John’s only skill isn’t making people mad. He’s a veteran police officer, and as he demonstrates, he’s a pretty good one. We see him putting together the clues.

[CLIP – DIE HARD – JOHN – FAKE IDS AND EUROPEAN CLOTHING LABELS]

Katie Walsh, film critic for the Tribune News Service and LA Times.

KATIE WALSH

And then you get John McClane, who’s just like – kind of just a guy. He’s a normal, everyday guy; he doesn’t have special training other than being a cop. He uses common sense and he’s not like a special forces guy he’s not a military dude. He’s just like, I’m just using my everyday knowledge of being a cop and applying that to this situation. So, in many ways he does fit the mold of this singular hero who’s resourceful and thinks on his feet and has, you know a specific set of skills, but it’s not so outside the realm of everyday possibility.

SIMONE: He doesn’t have the Liam Neeson “set of special skills.”

KATIE: No, no. You’re not like, Oh my god, this guy was in the special forces, you kind of look at him and go, you know, this guy is just a really good cop who happens to be very physically gifted and resourceful.

Something I read that I really, really loved is how even though John is armed with a machine gun (ho ho ho), he uses it as so much more. From the blog “Another Angry Woman”:

“And yet, in John’s hands, the primary function of the gun is not as a weapon. There are more instances within the film of John using the gun as some sort of tool than as something to kill or hurt people with… John is far more creative in his use of firearms. In his hands, a gun becomes a multitude of useful objects as he displays the kind of creative thinking that neurosexists like to term ‘feminine’ as opposed to the logical, analytical male approach. The gun, wielded by John, is a device for allowing escapes as a rig and a thing to get back into the building, as well as jamming a fan. It is also repeatedly used as a last-resort communication device, shooting to make noise and draw attention, shooting to direct a crowd away from explosive death.”

John McClane, even though he’s presented as a tough, macho New York City cop, actually ends up subverting macho stereotypes throughout the film. In our last episode, we talked about the hulking meat-trees that starred in other 80s action movies. John McClane is already different in that, while masculine, he’s not masculinity on steroids. In fact, it’s the macho posturing of the forces around him: the LAPD and the FBI versus the terrorists, that creates a stalemate that forces McClane to act.

JEREMIAH FRIEDMAN

One of the moments I always like to think about and talk about when I’m talking about the movie, is what he jumps off the roof when the roof blows up. When he gets up there – first of all, he’s forced to jump off the roof ‘cause they’re shooting at him and he’s going to die. And before he does it, he’s terrified and he says a prayer to God to please don’t let him die.

[CLIP – DIE HARD – JOHN – ON ROOF]

And it makes him so human, and you’ve never really seen that and that kind of character before. He’s not just doing it because he’s a badass, he can do this. He’s doing it because he has to do it. And that’s kind of the beauty of the movie. He keeps getting forced Into doing things he does not want to do. And he keeps trying to get out of it, in a way. But he’s kind of, the movie plays with all the Western stuff, the Roy Rogers, he’s the cowboy he’s got to get the job done. But he’s scared, and he’s vulnerable, and he’s angry, and he has very human reactions to the crazy things that are happening around him. So the aspirational quality I think is that you would be able to be a smart and brave and as tough eventually as McClane is. And you would die as hard as he does. I would go out in the… I wouldn’t be Ellis, but I would go out pretty quickly.

John – and the movie Die Hard itself – gets compared to cowboys in Westerns a lot. As Deep Focus Review puts it, “McClane is established as a newly envisioned but classical Western hero — an Easterner ‘goin’ out West’ to tame the frontier. Gruber, McClane’s nemesis throughout the film, even points this out later by referring to McClane as a cowboy.” And John is a cowboy, in a lot of ways. An honorable sheriff type, trying to save the townspeople with nothing but his wits and his grit. According to the site Script Secrets, “He is a cowboy: an individualistic man whose character is earthy and grounded in reality.”

[CLIP – DIE HARD – HANS – GARY COOPER]

And there it is. Even while he’s a cocky, swaggering cowboy, one of the cowboys John McClane resembles most is Gary Cooper’s Will Kane in High Noon, who was already an in-genre subversion of the cowboy trope. In High Noon, Will Kane learns of a dangerous enemy coming back into town in a mere couple of hours. It’s a man who he once sent to prison, who is now free and will certainly try to seek revenge. At first, Kane attempts to flee with his wife (played by Grace Kelly), but he feels compelled to end this threat to his life, and the safety of the townspeople. So he comes back to face him… but discovers that the townsfolk won’t help him. Kane is left alone to face Frank Miller. And he’s afraid. He’s visibly desperate and afraid. But with no other choice, he shows down with Miller and his gang, and – with a little assist from his wife – he takes them all out.

McClane’s fear and vulnerability was the biggest twist in the action movie genre at the time. From Deep Focus Review again: “McClane is not an impervious robotic warrior carved from the template of the action movie gods. Embodied by Willis with pitch-perfect humanism, McClane bleeds, cries out in pain and emotional desperation, and has imperfections that become his trademark. One of the film’s most memorable characteristics is how much physical punishment McClane endures and how such wear amasses on him through the course of the film.” Or how wear doesn’t amass through the film – by the end of the movie, John’s lost his shirt alongside his shoes, and heads into his final confrontation with Hans almost stripped bare.

SASHA PERL-RAVER

Girl, what isn’t broken inside of John McClane? His marriage is broken, the smoking is broken, the bare feet – the bare feet is such a great example of a character whose vulnerability you just can’t avoid. He obviously has a lot of interpersonal stuff going on with his wife, with his family, with wanting to save all these people. Also with just wanting to be good at his job. But you don’t like the physical embodiment of it, as you see him get more like, cut up and bloodied, as he’s running through the glass to get to exit, all of that stuff is such a great way to make the character somebody who you’re like, “Oh, I see that.” I wonder if the movie got made now, if they would have allowed him to get his bloodied up as he does. Because he looks messed up by the end of the film, as well he should.

JEREMIAH FRIEDMAN

And that’s part of the fun of the movie. You watch him – they really put him through the ringer. He gets the crap beaten out of him in that movie, in a way that doesn’t really happen in the sequels as much. That’s kind of fun – you feel like he’s running this gauntlet, and at the end, when he wins, he earns it. He earns the right to kill Hans and save his marriage, because he’s really been put through hell by this entire experience. And again that goes back to the making him human: he’s bleeding, and he’s tired, and he’s angry and frustrated, and he’s reacting like a heightened human being would react as opposed to just a cartoon movie hero.

The obvious physical manifestation of John’s vulnerability is his cut up feet. John was caught by surprise by the terrorist takeover, in the middle of a quiet moment when he is practically defenseless. But it’s his emotional vulnerability that makes us feel for him. And how the filmmakers show John’s emotional vulnerability is nothing short of genius.

Deep Focus Review: “Some of McClane’s best moments are by himself as he talks himself through the situation. Whereas stone-faced lone heroes had machine-gunned their way through countless bad guys in action movies before, McClane just an average cop, after all, not even a super-cop… In this unpolished treatment of McClane, and the character’s ability to make observations about his own situation, he becomes instantly ‘real’ when compared to his unstoppable counterparts.”

[CLIP – DIE HARD – JOHN – WHY DIDN’T YOU STOP THEM]

KATIE WALSH

You know, I love when he’s talking to himself when he’s alone in the building, and I think the script as kind of brilliant in the sense that he gets the radios, and so he can talk to everybody. They’re all in different spots in the building, But he can talk to Al, he can talk to Hans, he can talk to all these different people. And that really keeps the story moving, and it also lets us understand him as a person and the way he presents himself. So I think that the way that they function the radios in that whole thing is so brilliant in terms of storytelling. But I also love when he’s just talking to himself, and he’s like “No, John, why didn’t you stop them, John.” And you can tell, he’s kind of got like anxiety or something, he’s, you know. Like, that’s what I would say to myself if I was in that situation. “Aw, darn it, why did you do that?” So you relate to him in that way ‘cause you are getting some insight into his psyche. It’s not like you can’t understand him. You totally understand him.

One scene in particular is the perfect example of John’s physical and emotional vulnerabilities intersecting.

[CLIP – DIE HARD – JOHN AND AL – BATHROOM]

To quote Empire Magazine, “McClane has narrowly escaped a gunfight and holes up in a bathroom to remove shards of jagged glass from his shredded feet. As he does so, McClane has a heartfelt back-and-forth with Reginald VelJohnson’s Al Powell, an LA flatfoot with whom he has forged a brotherly connection over a walkie-talkie. As their dialogue exchange continues, McClane — alone, badly injured and afraid — breaks down and starts sobbing. [In] Willis, audiences were suddenly confronted with a recognisably vulnerable hero who didn’t have all the answers, who didn’t laugh — or stoically squint — in the face of danger or death. Sure, he cracked wise, but his humour felt organic, a defence mechanism to keep him sane. Here was a hero who made Arnie and his muscle-bound ilk seem antiquated.”

John’s relationships with other people are what keeps him going. His trying to ensure Holly’s safety is his sole motive throughout the movie. The thought of her helps him to push through his fear and pain. But it’s also his walkie-talkie relationship with fellow cop Al Powell that gives him the extra, in-the-moment support to stave off despair.

SASHA PERL-RAVER

What is the most important vulnerabilities that he has, is his yearning to be back with his wife. The relationship he has with Bonnie Bedelia, wanting to keep her safe, wanting to make sure that the mother of his child is okay, that’s huge. But also I love the relationship he has with Al, I think that’s really, really special, and the way that he’s able to latch on to this voice through the radio and they have such a strong bond and connection, is really beautiful. It’s bromance the way we wanna see it. Dudes supporting other dudes in this great way.

From his feet to his emotions, from his relationship with his wife to his battle with the terrorists, John McClane’s story is a perfect example of external and internal conflict aligning. As Script Secrets puts it, “But what makes Die Hard into a superior script is the nexus between the Villain’s Plan and the Protagonist’s character arc… 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. 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, organic plot.”

Shannon Hubbell, editor-in-chief of LewtonBus.net.

SHANNON HUBBELL

And also, beyond the fact that he just happens to be there in the building, and he wants to get the bad guys and he wants to save all the hostages, he’s there for an emotional reason. He shows up having screwed up his relationship with his wife. And he wants to save her. He has an emotional connection to what he’s trying to do. Going back to Under Siege, Segal’s character in that is just a cook who used to be a Navy Seal. And he just happens to be in the ship, and there’s no real motivation for him being a total action movie bad ass other than him just naturally being an action movie bad ass. So yeah, McClane is extremely relatable. He wants to save his wife, he wants to preserve the relationship with his wife. And also by extension his kids and whatnot. He’s a person who happens to be pretty damn good at killing people.

SIMONE: Well you know the best arcs are the ones that we are on the outside what’s happening on the inside. So he’s literally fighting to save his wife.

SHANNON: Yeah, absolutely.

JEREMIAH FRIEDMAN

And I would say the closest he comes to really arcing is the bathroom scene, when he’s pulling the glass out of his feet, and he’s on the radio with Karl – er, Al, not Carl Winslow… He’s on the radio with Al, and he kind of gives up and starts thinking that he’s not going to make it out. And he takes responsibility for the failure of his marriage. I think that’s pretty much an arc. I mean, he’s able to get someplace emotionally he wasn’t able to get earlier in the movie and from that, he kind of earns the epiphany of “what was Hans doing on the roof?” And then he goes up to the roof and there’s the C4 and all that stuff.

But even with the impeccably plotted script and carefully built character of John McClane, the role could have easily fallen flat without that third element: the actor. (Or Fifth Element, heyo.)

Remember, they wanted to cast pretty much anyone BUT Bruce Willis as the lead for this movie. They looked at everyone from Schwarzennegger and Stallone to Don Johnson and Richard Gere to Burt Reynolds and Robert De Niro. In the end, they took a huge, five million dollar gamble on Bruce Willis. But it worked.

ADAM STERNBERGH

But I think if you were to watch Die Hard and Raiders of the Lost Ark side by side, there’s something about the Indiana Jones character that seems a little bit more well-rounded than the John McClane character. But at the same time, you know, you might even say that about watching Casablanca or something like that. I mean, there’s many actors and many great characters in Hollywood history where the lead performance is essentially the actor’s extraordinary charisma carrying it, and it’s not something that any other actor could have brought to the role. And so sometimes I think you know, lightning just strikes and you end up with the right person in the right role and so in many ways I just feel like John McClane was, like, Bruce Willis; he was the embodiment of whatever it was that people loved about Bruce Willis, this kind of irascible, indefatigable charm that he had.

SASHA PERL-RAVER

I think that Bruce Willis certainly is a better actor. And is therefore better able to get the pathos across, and able to really deliver the lines without feeling like you learned them phonetically. Which is something you get a lot of in Schwarzenegger’s early performances and even later performances. 

SCOTT WAMPLER

Well I also think Bruce Willis is an asshole but not a lovable one. I think the Bruce Willis at that point in his career, though, is not the Bruce Willis that we know today. You know, he was still humble, he started out as a bartender. I think Bruce Willis, when he made Die Hard, even though he had been on Moonlighting and was still kind of hot shit at that time, was – he hadn’t developed the full Bruce Willis ego that has sort of come to define him in his later years. People knew who he was because of Moonlighting, and a series of very entertaining Bartles & Jaymes commercials that I would encourage all of your listeners to go find on YouTube. That will make your fucking skin crawl with embarrassment.

[CLIP – BRUCE WILLIS SEAGRAM’S COMMERCIAL]

But, you know, he was not a Stallone or a Schwarzenegger. He wasn’t even a Van Damme. He was a guy. He was just a dude. And still doing Bogart a little bit. He’s still got that earthiness to him.

SHANNON HUBBELL

But also before die-hard established him as an action hero, much like Kurt Russell in Escape From New York, That was the first action role for Kurt Russell. He was in Disney movies before that. He was in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. And then John Carpenter put an eye patch on him and some tattoos and told him to growl. And now he’s an action star. And it was kind of the same thing with Bruce Willis. He was more of a comedic actor as I recall, before that. Again tying in with the idea of McClane being more relatable, everyman-ish action hero, having someone who’s completely not associated with the action genre before that, really makes that character work. He’s just a dude. He’s just a balding dude.

KATIE WALSH

But yeah, he’s charming, he’s funny, he’s a better actor. He’s got the gift of gab. It’s a different star persona and it’s a different acting ability, completely.

John McTiernan has said something similar. “Bruce is most endearing when he’s being a smart-ass. That’s the essence of his stardom is somebody’s pointing a gun right between his eyes and he goes, ‘Oops.’ That irreverence is what we seem to love about him.” Willis even improvised the “Hi, honey” at the end of the movie.

[CLIP – DIE HARD – JOHN – HI HONEY]

As Empire Magazine put it, “It’s testament to Willis that he not only thwarts Gruber’s heist, but also Rickman’s own audacious attempt to walk away with a multi-million dollar movie. Willis’ performance in Die Hard is hungry and committed, redolent of a man visiting the Last Chance Saloon, and it worked handsomely, turning him into a bona fide megastar. What’s more, his McClane — a likeable mix of working-stiff neuroses, desperate heroics and wise guy sardonics — changed the face of action heroes forever.”

In the end, Bruce Willis’s John McClane gave us someone to root for. All of the character’s influences, from reacting to other action heroes to Gary Cooper to Bruce Willis himself, create someone who is… a human. And no matter what extraordinary things we see onscreen, telling human stories is where film is most powerful. It’s why Die Hard rises above its peers – all thanks to John McClane.

In our next episode, we’ll take a look at John’s wife Holly. Whether she goes by Gennaro or McClane, Holly’s role as a working woman, a wife, and a mother brings forward the changing role of women in 1980s film.

Thank you to our guests Jeremiah Friedman, Sasha Perl-Raver, Scott Wampler, Reed Fish, Adam Sternbergh, Katie Walsh, and Shannon Hubbell. Be sure to check the show notes on the website to learn more about them.

Thanks again for joining me, and yippee-kai-yay, motherfuckers!