This article was written on 16 Dec 2013, and is filled under Film & TV.

McClane, Cultural Myth, Counter-Mythography

At a June 27, 2007 ceremony, Bruce Willis, the famous actor, donated to the Smithsonian the undershirt he sported as NYPD officer John McClane in the first movie of the Die Hard series (1988).[1] Some have scoffed at the donation, arguing that, unlike objects such as the hat Lincoln wore the fateful night of April 14, 1865 and which is also on exhibit at the Smithsonian, Hollywood props carry scant historical value. It has also been pointed out, McClane is not a “real” person, nor is Willis a figure of Lincoln’s stature. It would follow along these lines that the significance of items like McClane’s undershirt is “anthropological” at most.[2] To that extent, such articles’ presence in the Institute’s collections ought to be accounted for or “interpreted within a larger historical context” lest they remain meaningless. Moreover, we are further warned, they could confuse the patrons, who may be led to believe that the desk on which Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and McClane’s police badge (both also among the Institute’s holdings) are on a par. Should that happen—should movie-making be treated as historiography by other means—the Smithsonian would “dumb down our history” and defeat its own purpose in the bargain.

The case against the undershirt’s historicity is then twofold: cultural and historical. On the one hand, Die Hard as a whole is deemed culturally inferior, too lowbrow to count as a cultural document and historical signifier. On the other hand, we also gather, whatever the movie shows, this stuff does not exist in the sense in which things we touch and feel do. Even if mass-produced Hollywood film was “serious” culture, the undershirt belongs to a fictional repertoire, and fiction cannot possibly be “actual” history. The item, critics reluctantly allow, might mean something solely in an analytically historicizing context, to wit, in an exculpatory, de-trivializing and legitimizing association or relation with other, non-cinematic, “truly” historical memorabilia, facts, or people. In and of itself, however, McClane’s top tells us, as the same commentators contend, little if anything about American history. Granted, it did surface within this history. For one thing, though, that did not happen “in reality” but in a movie; for another, the movie in question is not even “historical,” featuring as it does no major American events or personalities.

One takes nothing away from Willis’s knack for being “in” character if one sheds light on that which, “in” McClane, affords his mass appeal besides the actor’s bad-boy charm, that is, on the cultural baggage the hero lugs around. This baggage is mythical. If Willis plays McClane, McClane plays a myth. The star is “in” a cool character; the character, “in” a national myth. Responding to McClane, we also react to a late 20th-century recycling of this myth. In fact, McClane resonates with us because, in him, the myth calls out to us. But this call is a half hearted whisper, a facetious interpellation. For the myth references and simultaneously effaces itself qua myth so as to dissimulate the pressure it applies on us. To deflect this pressure, the Roland Barthes-inspired counter-mythography employed here here must first bring the myth into view. This is where McClane’s undershirt comes in.

In Die Hard’s cinematic architecture, the top functions as a hinge joint where the two performative layers of Willis’s acting articulate. One has to do with his individual talent, is personal, and unfolds in the present although it may well refashion this present and history largely as more and more fans mimic Willis’s tough-guy deportment. At this level, the film deploys McClane’s “wife-beater” as “dress code” for an emerging, rough-and-ready paradigm of American masculinity. Beneath and, in effect, underwriting this surface level is another, less visible, culturally thicker, and wielding more leverage in Die Hard’s symbolic economy. This is the collective level of performance; this is where the myth plays out and, to a considerable degree, provides for Willis’s own role-playing, so much so that, on closer inspection, McClane’s machismo itself proves a stand-in for an older ideal in which gender and culture models become quasi interchangeable, viz., for the myth as embodied in the collective imagination by heroic figures such as gunslingers and mobsters. Here, history is already present, as Willis himself acknowledges.”[3]

          Die Hard has been a huge success and may wind up making history literally because, on one side, as Willis notes, the movie is made of history, comes from the past and drags it into our time, while, on the other side, even the “universal” moral conflict the actor credits is, as we will see right away, culturally qualified according to the taxonomy built into the myth’s grammar. No doubt, recent box office history and the cultural history his play-acting might set in train can too be adduced as an argument, but, once again, even stronger is the argument from the cultural history McClane—the dramatis persona, not his impersonator—already enacts; as a male icon, McClane—Willis as McClane, rather—may be something today’s American men still dream of becoming, but as an American, McClane is something Americans, men and women, have always been one way or the other, at least in their eyes, namely, “Adamic.” Indeed, McClane is just another American Adam, in the sense explored by R. W. B. Lewis in his classical study.[4]

McClane marks a moment in a series coextensive with the history of America and its letters from revolutionaries such as Thomas Jefferson to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Don DeLillo, and their Huck Finns, Gatsbys, and Nick Shays to politicians like Reagan and Obama.[5] All of them have made in their time, to the country and to themselves, a promise “as old as the country itself: to wipe clean the slate of history and begin again from scratch,” no historical strings attached.[6] The paradox on which the myth and its incorporation rest becomes thus immediately apparent: no longer had the American Adams made this extraordinary pledge than they summoned a whole order, an entire line of actual and imagined people who had made it before and thereby had already set in motion a tradition, had inscribed a culture complete with its idioms and ideologies on the country’s slate. This holds true for founding fathers like British-born Paine too, whom America’s “circumstances” struck “as in the beginning of a world.”[7] Adamism may then view itself as an exception to history and more broadly as an exceptionalism[8]—the Adam type may be or see itself as uncommon among other cultural categories and cultures—but within the U. S., Adam or, more accurately, Adamism as a cardinal American project and self-perception is endemic; no wonder critics keep calling McClane “everyman cop.”[9] And vice versa: John is a regular Joe. Yet again, this ordinary guy is also an American Adam. The undershirt makes sure that we get it.

It goes without saying, this is not the garb’s only message to us. However, this is not, in McClane’s appearance, the only element feeding into this key message either. He also walks barefoot. Ideally, and to drive home the film’s Adamic point, the protagonist should have been completely naked. If he is not, that is not just out of ratings considerations. Willis seems reasonably fit—his physique is and must come off as “average,” and therefore he cannot be “ripped,” a machinic body worked over by technology. Besides, the competition from the Sylvester Stallone-Arnold Schwarzenegger direction was getting overwhelming at the time.[10] Furthermore, technological know-how and the cultural sophistication usually tied into it, more precisely a certain perceived, “over-the-board,” flamboyant savoir-faire and worldly refinement in matters ranging from hi-tech dexterity to plurilinguism, elocution, social etiquette, and couture, are exactly what the character battles throughout.

McClane’s torn tank does not cover his nakedness, much as his foot bandages do not make him less barefoot. Of course, what we are talking about is a nudity best understood metaphorically rather than literally, for his rags lay “bare” his cultural “Adamism,” his “simplicity”—no wonder Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons), whose brother, Hans, is memorably played by Alan Rickman in the first Die Hard movie, calls McClane a “dumb Irish flatfoot” in Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995). But this is not all. McClane certainly has a “primitivist” axe to grind. Beyond the “committed” primevalism conspicuously woven into the symbolic fabric of his shirt, what catches the trained eye is not so much the body sporting a few clothes worn to shreds but quite the other way around, a bunch of blood-smeared rags wearing the body’s heroic essence on them, as it were. The foot wraps are not socks, nor is the dirty top an outfit any more. Advertising the “diehard” body’s excruciating pain amidst the against-the-odds trials, the tatters’ role is to foreground a pure and glorious physicality of sorts, the “absolute body” before not only the pretentious complications of stylish design, deportment, and “manners” but also before—and against—culture and style in general and, in particular, culture and style as affected complications.

Fundamentally, fashion is here cultural fashion, a mode of culture in the French sense of the word, if you will. Two such modes jockey for our sympathy in the movie. McClane exemplifies one of them. The other is illustrated by Hans Gruber, Takagi (Nakatomi Corporation’s CEO), Ellis (the dishonest colleague of McClane’s wife), TV “personality” Thornburg, Robinson (LAPD chief), and the arrogant FBI agents (the “Johnsons”). They all wear suits. Unsurprisingly, Gruber’s and Takagi’s British suits are the fancier. The German and the Japanese are foes, and Gruber does shoot Takagi dead when the latter refuses to hand over the code to the company vault. But, deeper than the plot’s strictures, they are alike, and, unlike McClane, who, notably, is both unclothed and off-duty, they are not that different from the government representatives either, be they local or central. Their formal dress is a signifier of culture as pointless excrescence on individual and collective bodies. High fashion and high culture largely are imports and, implicitly, antecedents. In this regard, most characters are symbolically overdressed. Far from being underdressed, McClane dons the right outfit “for the occasion” because the occasion is not the Nakatomi Christmas party but an opportunity for the culture to take another look at itself by watching McClane in action.

The Die Hard cop is our urban American Adam; the Nakatomi tower, a vertical frontier of sorts with McClane the one who stands alone when all the others have caved in. Except that he never stands but is always on the move according to an identical, ever-reset, short-time span routine, taking out his enemies one by one, floor by floor. Described by Lewis and personified by McClane, this American Adam provides a window into American history and the ideological mindset behind this history. McClane is in a position to “name” American ideology because the movie places him concurrently outside and inside that ideology by emphasizing his cultural-ideological innocence while making no bones about the proclivities and values of the tradition on whose behalf his clothes, aspect, and bearing speak:[11] simplicity, frugality, a can-do attitude, a pragmatism ready to re-naturalize cultural environments and boil them down to Thoreauvian essentials, time and again,[12] “dazzled” neither by the “Eurotrash” nor by the multinationals, nor by homegrown bureaucrats. McClean’s demeanor and rejoinders can be quite dazzling themselves actually, in their own, humorous, self-deprecating way. Self-ironical, his irony is laconic, a pointed and spontaneous subversion of Gruber’s long-winded pretentiousness. The German speaks in elaborated sentences, whereas the American favors conciseness laced with the interjectional “Yippee-Ki-Yay, motherfucker,” possibly “the greatest one-liner in movie history.”[13] Indeed, McClane does not reject the cowboy stereotype his foe throws at him. His unostentatious ruggedness and stubbornness are “natural,” that is, come to him “naturally.” But, we need to remember, they do because they have come to him as history’s lesson and, as such, have been set up as mainstays of American self-understanding.

N o t e s

[1] Amy Crawford, “Die Hard Donation: Bruce Willis gives John McClane’s blood-smeared undershirt to the Smithsonian.” Smithsonian, (accessed July 14, 2009).

            [2] Crawford, “Die Hard Donation.”

            [3] Amy Crawford, “Die Hard Donation.”

            [4] R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

            [5] On representations of Adamism in Fitzgerald and DeLillo, see Joanne Gass, “In the Nick of Time: DeLillo’s Nick Shay, Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, and the Myth of the American Adam,” in Joseph Dewey, Steven G. Kellman, and Irving Malin, eds., UnderWords: Perspectives on Don DeLillo’s Underworld (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2002), 114-29. A more sweeping perspective offer the essays in Viorica Patea and María Eugenia Díaz, eds., Critical Essays on the Myth of the American Adam (Salamanca, Spain: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 2001). For a pre-U. S. history of the theme, the reader can consult Anthony D. York, “From Biblical Adam to the American Adam: Evolution of a Literary Type,” University of Dayton Review, 21, no. 3 (Spring 1992): 103-24.

            [6] John B. Judis, “American Adam: Obama and the Cult of the New,” The New Republic, March 12, 2008, 23.

            [7] Judis, “American Adam,” 23.


            [8] John Whalen-Bridge, “Some New American Adams: Politics and the Novel into the Nineties,” Studies in the Novel 24, no. 2 (Summer 1992), 187.

            [9] Eric Eisenberg is one of the many critics who have called McClane an “everyman cop.” See his article “Bruce Willis is Doing Die Hard 5 to Make Fun of It,” (accessed February 21, 2011).

            [10] On Rambo as an American Adam, see Adi Wimmer, “Rambo: American Adam, Anarchist and Archetypal Frontier Hero,” in Jeffrey Walsh and James Aulich, eds., Vietnam Images: War and Representations (New York: St. Martin’s, 1989), 184-95.

            [11] Whalen-Bridge, “Some New American Adams,” 198.


            [12] Giles Gunn, “The Myth of the American Adam,” in Richard M. Dorson, Inta Gale Carpenter, Elizabeth Peterson, and Angela Maniak, eds., with an ntroduction by Edson W. Richmond, Handbook of American Folklore (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1983): 80-81.

[13] Eric Lichtenfeld, “Yippee-Ki-Yay . . . The greatest one-liner in movie history.” Slate, (accessed July 14, 2009).

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