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Merry Christmas, Rambo

Though it’s rarely considered a Christmas film, First Blood—and not internet darling Die Hard—is the best action movie for the festive season
December 22, 2023

On 3rd December 2020 in Washington DC, the House Democratic Caucus voted on an issue that exposed a schism in the party. Asked in a practice vote to choose their favourite Christmas movie, they opted for (presumably the original 1947 version of) Miracle on 34th Street. It was an uncontroversial choice, but what did raise comments—and eyebrows—was one of the runners-up: the 1988 Bruce Willis action classic Die Hard.

The annual online debate over whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie never needs much to ignite it, and many who commented on the vote immediately split into two camps: those who felt Die Hard was not a Christmas film at all and those, such as CNN’s lead Washington anchor, Jake Tapper, who felt that Die Hard should have won in a landslide. Miracle on 34th Street was, Tapper wrote on Twitter, a “typical safe mainstream choice by pols”, adding that he was glad, though, to see “the best Christmas movie”, Die Hard, included on the shortlist of candidates.

Two days after the vote by House Democrats, Barack Obama addressed the Die Hard debate during an appearance on The Tonight Show. Asked by its host, Jimmy Fallon, to settle the question of whether Die Hard is or is not a Christmas movie, Obama categorically declared: “It’s a Wonderful Life is a Christmas movie. [A] Charlie Brown Christmas is a Christmas movie. Die Hard is an action flick that happens to involve—tangentially—Christmas.”

The remarks attracted international condemnation, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, traditionally an ideological ally of Obama’s, rushing to distance himself from the former President’s stance. “Look,” Trudeau wrote on Twitter. “@BarackObama and I agree on many things… but on this, we disagree because he is clearly wrong. I’ll put it on the record again here: Die Hard is a Christmas movie.”

Though Obama’s take is the more nuanced, it is Trudeau’s that has taken hold. So many people make a point of watching Die Hard each festive season—and of announcing on social media that they are doing so—that it has entered the canon of Christmas films whether it deserves to be there or not. Meanwhile, Die Hard diehards, such as Tapper, now feel that the important point to make is not that Die Hard is a Christmas movie but that it is the best Christmas movie.

But Die Hard can’t be the best Christmas movie—because it isn’t even the best Christmas action movie. That title belongs to First Blood, the film that introduced Sylvester Stallone’s action icon John Rambo. Although its Christmas credentials are seldom acknowledged, they far outstrip Die Hard’s.

The Rambo of First Blood—which was released in the UK on 16th December 1982—is not the musclebound superhero possessed of a bulletproof backside, and beloved of Ronald Reagan, that we see in the sequels. He’s a drifter so tormented by PTSD that he is unable to settle into civilian society after serving in Vietnam, where, as an elite special forces operative, his extraordinary heroism earned him the Medal of Honor, the American equivalent of the Victoria Cross. He is trying to find an army friend with whom, we can later infer, he hoped to spend Christmas. But the friend has died and Rambo is devastated.

He walks into a town named Hope—passing under a huge sign that reads “Gateway To Holidayland”—but the bigoted local sheriff doesn’t like the way he looks and wrongfully arrests him. In the police station where Rambo is abused so badly he has flashbacks to the torture he endured as a prisoner of war, there is a Christmas tree, a jolly ornamental snowman and a banner reading “Merry Christmas”. When Rambo escapes, chased by the sheriff, he passes buildings decorated with multicoloured Christmas lights while a billboard showing a colossal Santa Claus looms over the town like the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg.

Die Hard features a Christmas party on Christmas Eve but, as Barack Obama would no doubt point out, the type of party, and the time of year it takes place, is largely immaterial. What matters to the plot is that a group of potential hostages have a reason to stay behind after work in an otherwise empty building, so the villains can capture them and the hero can free them. The plot of First Blood, meanwhile, is a Christmas parable: a stranger, hungry and cold and grieving the death of his friend, wanders into a small American town—so often the setting of Christmas movies—hoping for something to eat.

But, instead of being welcomed with seasonal goodwill, he is rejected and chased out into the Christmas snow, beginning a chain reaction of violence. Most Christmas films show the good that kindness can do. First Blood shows the evil that unkindness can unleash. And, while Die Hard’s ultimate message is that it’s cool to kill bad guys while delivering one-liners, First Blood has a seasonal message of mercy. Throughout the film, Rambo refuses to kill anyone and, in the climactic scene, chooses to spare the life of the sheriff who has unjustly pursued him. It’s as close as a 1980s action hero gets to turning the other cheek.

It’s true that nobody in First Blood actually says “Christmas” and that Christmas just provides the background for the action. But that is partly the point. We see the film mainly from Rambo’s perspective and, in the town where his story unfolds and his life unravels, it is Christmas for everyone except him. He is the character most in need of Christian charity, but no-one even mentions Christmas to him.

And so, underneath the explosive action sequences, is a reminder that, as we celebrate Christmas, we should help those less fortunate than ourselves to celebrate it too. That is a time-honoured festive message—and one that viewers of this film have too long overlooked. More than 40 years after it was made, First Blood deserves to be recognised as a Christmas classic.

Read Scott Jordan Harris’s review of a book about 1980s action heroes here—or in the Prospect winter double issue.