The Most (Secretly) Conservative Movie of All Time

Over the past two days, we have counted down four of the top five most conservative movies of all-time. Feel free to check out part one and part two. But now we have come to #1, the most conservative movie of all time.

Action movies in the 1980s essentially functioned as feature-length campaign videos for the Republican party, specifically for the increased defense spending that was integral to their platform.  “Red Dawn” showed the practical need for such spending and served to recruit young Americans to the cause. “Rambo” aimed to erase the stain of Vietnam and paved the way for future military action. There were also a large number of “rogue cop” movies – such as “Lethal Weapon,” “Tango and Cash,” and “Above the Law” – that were inspired by the success of “Dirty Harry” and that dramatized a shift in thinking about crime from liberal to conservative. Republicans first started making inroads with working-class people in this era, and their toughness on crime was a big reason why.

These movies worked as powerful tools of persuasion for politicians seeking to redefine conservatism for a new era. But one action movie combines nearly every principle that conservatives of the 1980s held dear into a memorable blockbuster. It’s the kind of movie that, every time I catch it on TV, I have to stop what I’m doing and finish it. That movie is…

 1. “Die Hard”

Released during the last year of Reagan’s presidency, “Die Hard” is a paradigm of 1980s conservative dogma, decrying Communist governments, the breakup of the traditional family, Japanese takeover of American culture, and big government. John McClane (Bruce Willis) is a New York cop who has recently separated from his wife, Holly. More specifically, McClane has lost his wife to the feminist revolution. She left him and their home in New York (taking the kids) for a great job in L.A., choosing career advancement over her role as domestic homemaker. She has even started using her maiden name again.

As the film opens, Holly is working late on Christmas Eve, neglecting her family on a major holiday to put in time at the company Christmas party. McClane surprises her at her office in the huge Nakatomi office building. The Christmas party is a great opportunity for the filmmakers to drudge up the old anti-hippie propaganda that originated in the 1960s but was employed politically in the 1980s to rally conservative support. The filmmakers depict Holly’s new world as hedonistic and anathema to McClane’s traditional American values. At the party, he catches one of Holly’s colleague doing cocaine, and another pair having a drunken office tryst.

By the time German thieves storm the building and take everyone hostage, it is clear that McClane has two geopolitical enemies. The depiction of Germans, our chief enemy in World War II,  as villains further cements the film’s value system as post-war, pre-counterculture. But in some ways, it is Holly’s Japanese bosses who pose the biggest threat to McClane.

Throughout the film, McClane is depicted as a cowboy, the most traditional of American icons. He even nicknames himself Roy, after famous cowboy Roy Rogers, and his catchphrase – “yippee-ki-yay” – comes straight from every old cowboy film you’ve ever seen. But in the 1980s, Japanese culture was enjoying great influence in America. From sushi to Hondas to Mr. Roboto, Japanese culture was everywhere, and their economy was booming. Japan was seen to be a manufacturing powerhouse while American industry was struggling to keep pace. Many credited the Japanese work ethic, while inherently criticizing American workers for becoming complacent.

“Die Hard” is a bombastic, violent, and brainless response to America’s fear of losing its global superiority. By depicting the promotion of Holly by her Japanese bosses as the catalyst for the dissolution of her family, the filmmakers link the 1980s Japanese takeover of American culture with a deep existential assault on traditional American values. The Nakatomi Corporation lures McClane’s wife away from his family with a promise of financial independence, symbolized by a gold watch given to Holly as a company Christmas bonus. In film’s thrilling climax, villain Hans Gruber is dangling from the top floor of the building, certain to fall to his death. He wants to take Holly with him, and as he tries to pull her down, his hand grips the watch on her wrist, while McClane tries to pull her back into the building. In this moment, the watch symbolizes everything: Holly’s feminist desire to be more than a homemaker; the decreasing stature of the American male; and the rise of foreign economies at the expense of our own. The stalemate is broken when McClane gracefully unhooks the watch from her wrist, freeing her from the shackles of independence. Gruber to falls to his death.

In the final scene, McClane introduces his wife to the street cop who was helping him from the ground. He introduces her with her maiden name, but she quickly corrects him. She is “Mrs. McClane” again, re-domesticated. The cop informs her, “You’ve got yourself a good man. You take good care of him.”

I have no doubt that she will.



8 thoughts on “The Most (Secretly) Conservative Movie of All Time

  1. I was very pleased to see you include Forest Gump in your list. When I describe its politics the way you do, people look at me funny. And you didn’t even get to all the horrors the movie attributes to feminism.

    I have two questions about Die Hard, though. First, I don’t think its right-wing elements are so secret. At least not all of them. Second, the one politically redeeming characteristic of the movie is that, as in a million other American movies, the good guys break the rules and ignore what the authorities tell them to do. This impulse may be the only thing that protects this country from real fascism. I mean, most American Catholics don’t support Rick Santorum; indeed, they pick and choose among the Church rules they follow. A thoroughly conservative film would have a hero who follows the rules. Take On the Waterfront, an endorsement of kowtowing to McCarthyism, in my opinion.

    • Thanks for your comment. I love your thoughts on this, and I agree with your assessment of “On the Waterfront.” Director Elia Kazan famously named names at the HUAC hearings, and it’s pretty clear that “Waterfront” was a defense of his actions.

      Being only 8 years old when “Die Hard” was released, I can’t comment on whether people saw it as a conservative movie at the time, but I’d be interested to hear more about this. I think there are a lot of films (like the ones on my list) that don’t necessarily seem conservative at the time because they reflect political dogma that is so popular that it is almost invisible. Only when we leave that political era are we able to see the movies’ politics for what they are.

      Regarding the hero who “goes rogue” and ignores the authorities, I agree that this is an American archetype (hello, Sarah Palin), but in this case, I think it represents a criticism of big government and federal action. Note that the two heroes in the story are the cops who are working on this at the ground level, so to speak. McClane and Sgt. Powell have the most direct knowledge of the situation and are the most effective in stopping Gruber and his team. Of course, they are not in charge for long. Each successive step up the chain of command leads to a superior who is not equipped to handle the situation. The deputy chief of police is portrayed as a complete bozo throughout (even when Gruber is falling to his death, we cut away to him saying, “I hope that’s not a hostage). Then, there is the sense of impending doom that permeates the film as soon as the “feds” get involved. Their action leads to the biggest set-back in McClane’s effort against the terrorists/thieves, and the take-away to me is clear: federal involvement doesn’t work because the government doesn’t really know what is going on in people’s lives. Trust in the individual, and all will be well. To me, this seems like a conservative message.

      • I guess maybe we don’t fully agree on what it means to be conservative. The word is admittedly hard to pin down when it’s the self-identification of the backer of dramatic, expensive federal government undertakings such as Medicare Part D and the Iraq War. Nonetheless, I think that conservatism really means to favor existing institutions and practices. (Thus we appropriately call Forest Gump conservative.) So I don’t see the American tendency to distrust institutions and hierarchies as inherently conservative.

  2. Admittedly, there were some logical leaps of faith in my analysis. When there are such overwhelmingly conservative principles in a film, it’s easy (and fun) to find more.

    Of course, Bruce Willis is a famous Republican, and “Die Hard” was produced by 20th Century Fox. Willis received $5 million for his performance in “Die Hard,” an unheard-of amount at the time. Rupert Murdoch himself approved the salary.

  3. Pingback: “Die Hard”: A Libertarian slant? « Rick Wakeman's Cape

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