The Greatest Christmas Film of All Time

For those of you who lap up, like so many Hot Toddies, those treacly Christmas-themed films running up and down the TV dial this time of year to warm your cold, stressed heart in the toasty embers of the season, I’m going to offer up a one-time warning: this post may not be for you.

Because in the CFS’s manly world, one filled with bulging pecs, sweat-stained undershirts and profane bon mots, what makes for a great holiday movie is body count. Preferably by the dozen. Accompanied by automatic weapon fire, exploding squibs and panes of shattering glass. Which is why, of all the Christmas-related films throughout the years — and there are scores — only two legitimately can stake a claim to GOAT:

To prove my assertion, let’s take a detailed look at both films and, afterwards, to ensure objectivity in the matter, spend a moment running key criteria through an unemotional and extremely complicated algorithm to determine a winner. Onward…

Where Eagles Dare (1968, Dir. Brian G. Hutton)

One might contend that this WW2 adventure tale, starring the formidable (if strangely matched) duo of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, has no business being considered a Christmas film for the very simple reason that it has absolutely nothing to do with 25 December. However, despite superficial appearances (and plot) to the contrary, I contend this is as Christmas-y a movie as has ever graced the silver screen. Why? Just check out the following screen grab. See all those snowy, southern Bavarian villages, valleys and mountaintops? It’s Christmas incarnate!

What’s more, my first viewing of the film took place years ago on Christmas Eve, when my brother and I stumbled across a late-night showing on our local PBS station. Ergo, a psychic connection was made: Snowy Bavaria + Richard Burton’s pockmarked face + time of year = Christmas movie.

Synopsis

Brigadier General Carnaby, privy to sensitive strategic information, has been captured by the Germans. Taken to a Gestapo mountain fortress accessible only by cable car (Austria’s Hohenwerfen Castle acting as stand-in for the fictional “Castle of the Eagle”), it appears he’ll spill the beans about critical invasion plans. A multinational rescue team, led by Grenadier Guards Major John Smith (Burton) and U.S. Army Ranger Lieutenant Morris Schaffer (Eastwood), is assembled to parachute behind enemy lines.

Their mission? Find a way up and into the fortress — undetected, of course — free the General and then find a way back down. Mayhem ensues, including vertiginous cable car fights…

…double- and triple-crosses resulting in shocking revelations and general audience confusion…

…and the gratuitous inclusion of a couple attractive females (Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt)…

…for no other reason than to soften this testosterone-fest with a little kissy-kissy in a barn and, more importantly, justify the movie’s late-60s-appropriate tagline (“One weekend Major Smith, Lieutenant Schaffer, and a beautiful blonde named Mary decided to win World War Two”).

Algorithmic Evaluation (using 10-point holiday wreath scale)

Shattered Glass Quotient™ — Although Where Eagles Dare is chockfull of explosions, there is disappointingly little collaterally shattered glass — off the top of my head I can only think of Eastwood and Mary Ure knocking out the rear windscreen of a bus to let loose on pursuing German troops. Lest one accuse the production of penny-pinching, it’s only fair to note that, back in the day, this was less a hallmark of a good action flick than, say, the 1980s, when broken windowpanes became all the rage.

Score: 

Body Count — A little known codicil to the Fourth Geneva Convention states that, when portrayed in film, Nazi carnage isn’t just acceptable but also recommended. Which is why Where Eagles Dare gives no quarter to the Third Reich, making damn sure to shoot, knife, garrote, detonate, immolate, crush, paralyze and throw from great heights an inordinate amount of the fascist bastards. While I’ve never done an official count, a gentleman posted the following to YouTube, which pegs the carnage at 89:

Score: 

Righteous Villain Killshot™ — The film’s main villain, Sturmbannführer von Hapen, is rather soft as heavies go, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Gestapo stooge who, frankly, isn’t particularly integral to the plot and is dispatched rather suddenly by a bullet above his right eyebrow.

Score: 

Festive Mise en Scène — As mentioned earlier, although the film loses points for not taking place during the holidays, its setting in the Bavarian alps, what with all those gingerbread villages and smoky beerhalls, more than makes up for this inconvenient truth. As far as this writer is concerned, Where Eagles Dare is as Christmas-y as chestnuts roasting on a open fire and Jack Frost nipping at your nose.

Score: 

Dialogue Quotability — Despite the classically-trained Burton intoning his lines with the gravitas of a Shakespeare tragedy, there’s not much here in terms of great dialogue, other than, perhaps, the oft-repeated, “Broadsword calling Danny Boy” radio code. Plus, Eastwood just grunts.

Score: 

Die Hard (1988, Dir. John McTiernan)

If my initial viewing of Where Eagles Dare was inextricably linked to Christmas, I have no such relationship with Die Hard. Quite the contrary, the day I attended a 70MM Six-Track Dolby Stereo presentation of the film that promised to “blow [me] through the back wall of the theater” …

…the temperature was 102 degrees (remember the heat wave of 1988?), about as far removed from late December as the moon. Unlike Where Eagles Dare, however, Die Hard needs no justification to be considered a holiday movie; after all, the film takes place at a Christmas Eve party given by Joe Takagi of the Nakatomi Corporation and features this memorably festive bit of dialogue: “Now I have a machine gun. Ho…ho…ho…”

Synopsis

New York cop John McClane, on the outs with his executive wife, Holly Gennaro, decides to travel to L.A. to attend her company’s Christmas party and see if the two can patch things up. As luck would have it, the festivities are interrupted by heavily armed gunmen, which, as we all know, is a more effective form of couples therapy than some overpriced psychologist. Led by the charismatic Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), the thieves have a brilliant plan to rob the Nakatomi Corporation of $600 million in bearer bonds.

Mayhem ensues, with the pesky everyman McClane gumming the works with fierce gunplay…

…leaps from the roof using a fire hose as a bungee…

…claustrophobic crawls through heating ducts with only a zippo to light the way…

…and, of course, dodging spectacular helicopter explosions…

Algorithmic Evaluation (using 10-point holiday wreath scale)

Shattered Glass Quotient™ — As mentioned earlier, the 1980s ushered in a whole new level of cinematic destruction in terms of broken glass. Why? Who knows. Maybe because it sounds cool. Or it’s inexpensive to destroy. Regardless, Die Hard breaks the stuff with disturbing regularity, be it Willis’ character throwing a chair through a conference room window, or destroying the lobby’s facade with a jerry-rigged bomb, or shooting a hole through a pane to make way for his swinging body. Not to be outdone, the bad guys expend loads of ammo destroying klieg lights, exploding the building’s upper stories and, best of all, peppering the floor with shards to hobble our barefoot hero, the latter preceded by this memorable exchange:

Score: 

Body Count — While Die Hard dispatches dozens in its 132 minute run time, there’s no getting around the fact that Where Eagles Dare puts the Nakatomi Plaza carnage to shame.

Score: 

Righteous Villain Killshot™ — Many consider Die Hard one of the greatest action movies of all time, directed with aplomb and technical virtuosity by John McTiernan. Others, I’m sure, think it’s trash. (They’re wrong.) Regardless which side you fall on, I don’t think there’s a person who’s seen the film who doesn’t think the late Alan Rickman made all the right actorly choices. Quite simply, Hans Gruber is one of, if not the, greatest villain in movie history. Dapper, smooth, confident, ruthless — he’s got it all. As such, it would be a crime if he didn’t meet his demise in a spectacular fashion. Die Hard doesn’t disappoint, sending poor Hans plummeting 30+ stories to the ground below. Which shows that a good death doesn’t need to be gory to be satisfying. Check out this clever meme pulled from the interwebs celebrating the moment:

Score: 

Festive Mise en ScènePoints awarded for Christmas decorations at the Nakatomi Corporation, some seasonal tunes on the soundtrack and the fact that the film spawned some cool holiday swag, including a sweater featuring the “Now I have a machine gun. Ho…ho…ho…” line and an incredibly clever tree ornament:

Points subtracted for the film taking place in L.A., which, to this Midwesterner, is perhaps the least Christmas-y place in the world.

Score: 

Dialogue Quotability — Where to begin? Every other line is a keeper. Willis gets the bon mots, of course (“Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.” “Now I know what a TV dinner feels like.”) but it’s Rickman who gets to shine, putting his unique spin on such lines as, “Nice suit. John Phillips, London. I have two myself. Rumor has it Arafat buys his there” and “Well, when you steal $600, you can just disappear. When you steal 600 million, they will find you, unless they think you’re already dead” and “The circuits that cannot be cut are cut automatically in response to a terrorist incident. You asked for miracles, Theo, I give you the F.B.I.”

Score: 

Final tally/Wrap-Up

  • Where Eagles Dare: 25/50 holiday wreaths
  • Die Hard: 38/50 holiday wreaths

Both films are terrific but, as the algorithm proves, Die Hard is the superior Christmas entertainment, the greatest of all time, as a matter of fact. Check out the trailers for each and Merry Christmas:

3 Comments

  • Anonymous says:

    I’ve never been one to engage in the “Is Die Hard an Xmas” movie argument as I think its an irrelevant discussion. What is important and what we both agree is that DIe Hard is one of the greatest action movies of all time. I still remember the first time I saw it a the theater. I enjoyed this post James. EJB, Jr.

  • Jim says:

    EJB jr: *Sniff.*

  • Anonymous says:

    Rickman is SO great! Thanks for the reminder.

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