Die Hard is the quintessential Christmas movie—for action fans at least, but also for those sensible enough to recognize its greatness. And it is, we should note, quintessential of a great many other things: it’s the quintessential action film, and more specifically, it’s the blueprint for one-man-army films, trapped-and-outnumbered scenarios (or, as they have come to be named, ‘Die Hard scenarios’), and, if we are being academic about it, we might also be tempted to call it the best buddy-cop film there is, above even Lethal Weapon. If Die Hard wasn’t the starting point for each of those tropes, it was at least the film that defined them, and today it still reigns supreme in all of those standards.
But how many people actually recognize Die Hard for achieving such great heights? Most understand that it’s a great action movie, but I’m not so sure the general audience appreciates just how big an impact Die Hard had on the action genre. There’s another film I have the same concerns about, though it’s one that most wouldn’t recognize so readily: Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. In critical circles, Rashomon is highly revered. It was the first serious instance in film where the same event was shown from multiple viewpoints, and where each of the viewpoints varied depending on the person telling the story. It was one of the first films where the cinematographer pointed the camera right into the sun for effect, overexposing the image so that the screen would be saturated white. These are but its most basic successes. Rashomon is the very definition of a formative picture—it literally had a part to play in shaping the art of filmmaking. (The same applies to Die Hard, albeit limited to the action genre.)
Even for me, a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Kurosawa, watching Rashomon now, it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. Multiple viewpoints? Doesn’t every sitcom have at least one episode where it shows the same event from the perspective of two or three different characters? Wasn’t that Matthew Fox film from a few years back—Vantage Point—just one in a line of more modern pictures to deploy that narrative arrangement? And plenty of films shoot with the sun (or an analogous strong light source) well in the frame. Oversaturation (and similarly bright color palettes) is among the most common aesthetic choices in film today.
The mimicry of Die Hard seems even more egregious, if only because it’s easier to spot. Bruce Willis has made a career from emulating his seminal film repeatedly, and actors like Nicholas Cage, Liam Neeson, Mel Gibson, and Tom Cruise—the list extends even further, of course—have cemented their place in action film lore by essentially portraying the character of John McClane in a variety of different scenarios. Even television shows like 24 have, in one way or another, cribbed from the action classic.
Any great work will be mimicked. Blade Runner and Alien shaped their genre and received more than their fair share of knockoffs (Blade Runner essentially set the standard for future cities in science fiction—dark, grimy, rainy, depressing, and lonely); the same applies to Saving Private Ryan for war, Goldfinger for spy films, and so on. Derivate films exist in great numbers for a variety of reasons. The most plain and perhaps cynical reason is that studios want to cash in on a particular fad or craze before it dies out. Some fads last longer than others. The post-Blair Witch found footage/indie horror bonanza burned faster than magnesium, lasting for two or three years before it went dormant. The disaster films in the 70s and early 80s (i.e. Airport, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake) had a healthier time of it. The production of Die Hard scenario-type action films (i.e. Speed, Air Force One) slowed by the end of the 90s, but still has more life today than the disaster genre or found footage genres (the latter virtually only exists as the Paranormal Activity franchise). Sometimes derivative films are created not as a cash grab but rather out of a sense of homage, and in the case of more artistic films like Rashomon, narrative and cinematographic techniques are lifted because the work done in the film was so groundbreaking that it became the norm. But the fact that films get copied is not what concerns me.
Rather, I care more that the significance of the original works is lost to new generations and modern audiences. When a film is copied so many times over, the unique qualities of the original are obscured under the weight of the many derivatives. Who notices that Die Hard set the standard for one-man-army films when, just a decade later, hundreds of other one-many-army films had been released, films that we may just as readily point to? I am as guilty of this as anyone. Even though I’m acutely aware of Rashomon’s significance, I can’t help but watch it and feel a little underwhelmed. It comes across to me as a plodding and dense film, and is far from my favorite Kurosawa work. And now when I watch Die Hard, instead of appreciating its many breakthroughs, I obsess over unusual things that most other people don’t even notice—like the way John and Holly’s fraught marriage reflects male anxieties about family life that began to surface in the 80s (for example, the fact that John isn’t losing his wife to another man, but he’s losing her to her career; similarly, the fact that she is the primary breadwinner—he’s practically a bum, and she’s an executive).
It’s a byproduct of the mimicry, and one that is almost impossible to combat. It’s not Die Hard’s fault that it was successful and that it spawned an entire progeny of alike films. But even more damaging than all the copies is the passage of time. Ten to fifteen years ago, Rashomon was barely remembered, but it still merited a passing joke in The Simpsons. (It was the classic episode about Japan—Marge reminds Homer that he liked Rashomon, and Homer responds “That’s not how I remember it.”) Today, we may as well say that it is forgotten outside of niche film circles. Even Die Hard, as popular as it is, is suffering a similar fate. A short time back I happened to talk to a class of high school seniors about college and film studies; when I asked them (there was a reason for asking, though I can’t quite remember what it was) the overwhelming majority had never seen Die Hard. I’m not sure how that works, but there it was.
The knockoffs and the attrition effect of time conspire to undermine landmark films like Die Hard and Rashomon. Anybody who watches them will tell you that they are still great films, but they probably won’t recognize just how important they were. I don’t think that the fact that they were important should ever be forgotten, but it seems like it’s a battle that will inevitably be lost. It applies just as equally to all the other seminal works that we haven’t mentioned here. Even discounting younger generations, how many thirty-year-olds—forty-year-olds, even—have seen Citizen Kane? I suspect the number is shockingly low. Newer works suffer these challenges more rapidly than their predecessors. It took no time for studios to swipe The Dark Knight’s dark tone (more specifically, making a popular character ‘dark’) and apply it indiscriminately to other characters. Skyfall is essentially The Dark Knight without superheroes, and the upcoming Superman flick seems to be following a similar path. There’s not much to do about this. It is part of the natural cycle. The best we can do—something we need to do—is to try not to forget, and to recognize the very important space the likes of Die Hard and Rashomon occupy in the history of film.