There are films that are obviously Christmas films; they only make sense because they’re set at Christmas; it only feels right to watch them at Christmas; they belong to Christmas.
And then there are films that are associated with Christmas and they are the ones there are arguments about.
So… a Christmas film… or or just filmed at Christmas?_
I think the big question is “Could this story be told at any other time of the year and still work?” If the answer is “No, not really” then it’s a Christmas Film. If it’ll work set in June, September, or any other month, then it’s not. Or are there other things that decide what makes a film a Christmas film? So… first up is the one probably most argued about.
By the way… spoilers abound, but we’re talking about films that have been out for quite a while.
Die Hard is obviously and definitely set at Christmas. There’s a Christmas party going on at the Nakatomi HQ, John McClane (Bruce Willis) has flown across the country to be with his family for the holidays, and the coup de grâce is dealt to the bad guy by way of a Christmas present. So, that makes it a Christmas film then, yes?
Well, probably not. Being realistic, it doesn’t have to have been a Christmas party. It could have been a mid year celebration. Don’t Americans do something mid-summer time… beginning of July? So that takes care of the party and the meeting up. The present? That could have been a birthday present from a grateful boss, close friend, even from John McClane himself.
Die Hard 2
This time Holly McClane (Bonnie Bedelia) is flying to meet up with John. They’ve managed to get the kids farmed out somewhere, which isn’t very jolly, but it’s been a few years and maybe they’re more like stroppy teens than the cute little moppets they were the first time around. The only real reason for it being set at Christmas is so that the airport can be packed with people travelling in and out for the hols.
So, this one has even less actual connection to Christmas than the first outing. I may be being unnecessarily cynical, but the only real reason I can see for the Yuletide time slot is the big action sequences that take place outdoors and in the snow: hurtling around Washington DC in August on Ski-Doos would look a bit odd. So it’s either set at Christmas or moved somewhere snowy in summer… New Zealand? Australia? Yippie-ki-yay Cobber!
Now we’re starting to get more of a grip on the holiday season, surely. The action takes place a couple of days prior to Christmas. There’s talk of bonuses, parties, and Santa suits. There are the obligatory, “Sack him!” “On Christmas Eve?” speeches. Even Louis’ (Dan Ackroyd) suicidal descent takes place with him wearing a Santa outfit. Throw in the key plot point of the USDA report on orange crop forecasts being issued on New Years Day and it’s pretty much tied into being a Christmas film… surely?
Well… no. The crop report is the only thing that actually pins the film to the end of the year, and the news bulletin that shows Beeks (Paul Gleason) — with the report chained to his wrist — says it is “The crop estimates for next year’s orange crop,” but we are at the end of December, so next week is also next year. And the clincher is that those reports are put out monthly, so with minimal changes the whole thing could be switched to any time of the year.
The fight (it’s a Rocky film, of course there’s a fight!) takes place on Christmas Day, and that’s the link to Christmas… end of. Presumably that date was chosen as it is significant to Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), while not being observed by a Communist society, and so will help to unsettle him… or spur him on!
Anyway, bottom line is that Rocky Balboa is a proud American, so Thanksgiving or Independence Day would hurt him as much, if not more. Maybe — he says putting on his cynical hat — it’s that Christmas Day will have a greater resonance further around the world?
No, no, no. This is not a Christmas film. Just because there’s a bit of snow on the ground, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is playing when Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray’s (Ty Simpkins) parents say goodbye to them at the airport, does not make this a Christmas film. Merely a film set at Christmas.
So, the soundtrack sets the scene or, rather, the time of year. Jingle Bell Rock plays over the opening credits. There’s not much snow around, but we are in Los Angeles and the average low for December is about 8˚C, so that’s no surprise. So are we looking at another film that is just set around Christmas ?
Well, the other thing to bear in mind is Martin Riggs’(Mel Gibson) mental state. Following the death of his wife, he is depressed to the point of suicide. His story arc is one that ends in him finding a new purpose after hitting rock bottom and coming back, thanks to the love that you find in a happy family. Change his name from Martin Riggs to George Bailey and there’d be no argument.
Rambo: First Blood
There are decorations dotted around and that’s about it. First Blood could take place at any time of the year and would be exactly the same story.
Now this one looks very Christmassy. Well, it opens with a scene of snow falling and a Christmas parade featuring Samantha Caine (Geena Davis) dressed as Mrs Claus and riding a sleigh. The neighbours are around for drinks, and while she’s running a drunk home, she gets to break Rudolph’s neck. Seems very festive so far. Throw in an ambush under cover of carol singers, and it’s getting pretty definitive. I suppose the argument is that if Die Hard is a Christmas film, then so is The Long Kiss Goodnight.
Final Christmas Thoughts
I suppose one way of trying to settle the argument would be to let the studio decide. I’d say that if a film was released in time for the holiday season, then the studio and/or distributors would be thinking of film as a festive feature. Looking through our list, that makes only Rocky IV, First Blood, and The Long Kiss Goodnight Christmas films, as all the rest were released between March and July.
Mind you, Miracle On 34th Street had its premiere on 4th June 1947…
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Former teacher, lecturer, homelessness administrator, pharmacy dispenser now happily retired, happily married, and a very happy granddad. I live next to the Mersey but on the side Daniel Craig and Taron Egerton come from rather than the side the Beatles came from!