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Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? Director John McTiernan has thoughts

It's not just the December setting that makes the 1988 action classic a holiday movie.

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Is there enough Christmas in Die Hard to make it a Christmas movie?

Video screenshot by Gael Fashingbauer Cooper/CNET

Die Hard, the 1988 action movie starring Bruce Willis, isn't about Santa or elves, but it still shows up on numerous lists of the top Christmas movies. Of course, the film is set at Christmas -- and you can even buy unofficial shirts and face masks touting the Nakatomi Plaza Christmas Party 1988. But is it really a Christmas movie? The film's director, John McTiernan, gave an interview to the American Film Institute about what exactly he and producer Joel Silver had in mind, and strap in, because McTiernan has a complex thought process about the whole thing.

McTiernan's interview is tough to summarize. He discusses everything from fast food to how art helped bring down the king of France to his strong feelings about the past four years in American politics. But his thoughts on Die Hard reveal that the movie changed in focus from its original script.

To begin with, "Die Hard was a terrorist movie, and it was about these horrible leftist terrorists who come in to ... the Valhalla of capitalism," McTiernan said. "And it was really about the stern face of authority stepping in to put things right again."

But McTiernan didn't want to make that movie, he told Silver. He took inspiration from the classic 1946 Christmas movie, It's a Wonderful Life, especially the scene in which hero George Bailey discovers that his town of Bedford Falls has become the sleazy Pottersville. He wanted, he said, "a movie where the hero was a real human being, and the people of authority -- all of the important folks -- were portrayed as kind of foolish." 

Changing that focus made all the difference, McTiernan said, lending it a sneaky feeling that the filmmakers were getting away with something

"We hadn't intended it to be a Christmas movie, but the joy that came from it is what turned it in to a Christmas movie," he said.

And he goes on to draw a connection between the terrorists in the film and current events in the United States.

"My hope at Christmas this year is that you will all remember that authoritarians are low-status, angry men who have gone to rich people and said, 'If you give us power, we will make sure nobody takes your stuff,'" he said. "All those things you amass with power [are] meant to scare us, meant to shut us up so we don't kick them to the side of the road and (let) decent people of the world get on with building a future. Merry Christmas, and I hope we have a better year."