Some think it’s Die Hard, while others opt for a more traditional choice. But there are certain ingredients a great Christmas film needs, writes Natalie Haynes.

“It’s in the singing of a street-corner choir,” sing the Muppets in their peerless adaptation of Charles Dickens, The Muppet Christmas Carol. “It’s going home and getting warm by the fire. It’s true, wherever you find love it feels like Christmas.” And for many of us, Christmas films are as much a part of the psychological and emotional preparation for the season as mince pies and mulled wine.

Making the perfect Christmas movie is a tough proposition: get it right, and you become part of your audience’s festive rituals for years to come. Get it wrong, and you have 2014’s Saving Christmas, the IMDb entry for which reveals a score of 1.5 out of 10, after an internet campaign to create the lowest possible rating in the database. At the time of writing, it doesn’t even have that accolade: it’s slipped into second-from-last place.  

Christmas films are all about desire, though rarely in its erotic sense

The intricacies of a Christmas film are more complex than they might first appear. It isn’t necessary or sufficient to set a film at Christmas. Virtually every Shane Black film, from The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) to The Nice Guys (2016) is set at or near Christmas, but we don’t tend to think of them as Christmas films. Black has described his obsession with the festive season by referencing Three Days of the Condor, “the Sydney Pollack film, where Christmas in the background adds this really odd, chilling counterpoint to the espionage plot.” But for a film to achieve classic Christmas movie status, Christmas needs to be more than the counterpoint. It must be the focus.  

Christmas films are all about desire, though rarely in its erotic sense (Love, Actually is the best-known exception to this rule). Think of the scene at the start of A Christmas Story, where Ralphie gazes through the shop window at his longed-for BB gun. The film was made almost 40 years after the Cary Grant classic, The Bishop’s Wife, which has Loretta Young gazing with equal fervour at a beautiful hat.

The sense of longing for something which cannot love you back is intrinsic to this time of year

Just as Ralphie fears he may never receive the BB gun (since every adult he knows, from his parents to the department store Santa Claus, think he will shoot his eye out with it),  Julia also doesn’t imagine that she will ever own the glorious hat. The object of desire itself is less important than the yearning it instils in both character and viewer. Even if the gun and the hat aren’t quite what you had in mind for yourself this Christmas, the sense of longing for something which cannot love you back is intrinsic to this time of year: Christmas advertising depends upon it.

Grinches and gunshots

There is often a touch of magic in the best Christmas films, whether it is a quasi-religious miracle, or something a little more pagan. In The Bishop’s Wife Dudley may be an angel on an earthly mission to help David Niven’s Bishop Henry Brougham rediscover what is important about his faith, but he isn’t too grand to operate in small-scale ways: forcing Henry to negotiate with a fearsome donor by somehow sticking his trousers to his chair; fixing the bottle of port belonging to Professor Wutheridge so that it is somehow always full; decorating the Bishop’s Christmas tree and doing his filing, both in the blink of an eye.

Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho! – John McClane

Physical danger is the obstacle in several less traditional Christmas movies, including Jingle All the Way, Home Alone and We’re No Angels, but the greatest of these is surely Die Hard. New York cop John McClane, played by Bruce Willis, has landed in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, hoping to seek a reconciliation with his estranged wife, Holly (in the book on which the film is based, Nothing Lasts Forever, the policeman is visiting his daughter, Stephanie, so it seems reasonable to suggest that changing the character’s name to Holly is itself a Christmassy shift). McClane arrives at Holly’s workplace in the Nakotomi Plaza, only to find himself in the midst of a terrorist attack. McClane is the only man capable of stopping the terrorists (actually thieves, conducting an audacious armed robbery), and one of the film’s most glorious moments is when Hans Gruber (the much-missed Alan Rickman) reads the note left by McClane on the body of one of the criminal crew, “Now I have a machine gun. Ho ho ho.” So it’s not just Ralphie who longs for a gun for Christmas.

The dark side of Christmas

Die Hard fulfils another criterion of the archetypal Christmas film: it prizes family over money. Gruber and his men are only interested in stealing a huge sum in bearer bonds. They have chosen Christmas Eve for their attack, precisely because they hope to take advantage of the holiday: the Plaza is largely empty, the police are short-handed, so their target is at its most vulnerable. John McClane, on the other hand, has flown across the country because he still loves his wife, and wants to make up for his shoddy behaviour in the past. Holly loves him too, not least because it would take a heart of stone not to fall for a man who is single-handedly battling a building full of terrorists to win her back. Money plays no role in their relationship, although Holly’s promotion (and likely pay rise) had helped to drive them apart.

The film most closely associated with Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, reveals that the greatest jeopardy a character can find themselves in is psychological. George Bailey (James Stewart) is helped to see the value of his life by trainee-angel, Clarence. Having given up on his dreams of adventure in order to do the right thing by his family, George Bailey is a decent, patient man who seems as solid as the building-and-loan investment company in which he works. But an ugly twist of fortune and the hostility of the evil Mr Potter sees both George and his company in trouble, and George considers suicide.

The film is much darker than people remember: George Bailey’s brush with death is real and agonising to watch. There’s a similar moment in another James Stewart classic, The Shop Around the Corner, in which the shopkeeper Mr Matuschek discovers that his wife is having an affair with one of his staff. He is only saved from suicide by gunshot because the errand boy arrives back at the shop just in time. As the staff rally round him in the run-up to Christmas, we get caught up in the romance between Alfred and Miss Novak (Stewart and Margaret Sullavan), and almost forget the agony we’ve witnessed.

The best Christmas films put their characters through the ringer: financial or physical dangers often provoking profound emotional trauma. Christmas is what pulls them back from the brink. These movies rate love over money, family above gain, and add a little magic to the whole affair. If magic doesn’t fit, a gut-punch musical number will do (Judy Garland’s melancholy Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas in Meet Me in St Louis is the ideal). As the Muppets have it: “It is the summer of the soul in December.”

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