Book Review: Die Hard – The Ultimate Visual History by James Mottram and David S. Cohen

Amazingly, it has been thirty years since the release of the original, ground-breaking action classic and Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History is an outstanding collection of inside information that gives fans of the franchise – like I certainly am – an absolute Nakatomi Plaza of new knowledge and behind-the-scenes excitement.

Cleverly created by James Mottram and David S. Cohen, and to celebrate those 30 years in all their Die Hard glory, we’ve been taking a deeper look at this huge book as they include almost every aspect of the film-making process along the way. Published by Insight Editions, the coffee-table book is 240 pages and each one is packed with either behind-the-scenes imagery, discussion with the cast or crew involved and a deep delve into the process of making each Die Hard film from 1988, right up to 2013’s A Good Day to Die Hard. When they say it’s the ‘ultimate’ history, they aren’t pulling any punches.

Let’s be honest, there’s no logical argument that takes Die Hard away from being one of the definitive, iconic action movies of the late 1980’s but, of course, it wouldn’t be anything without Bruce Willis and his indelible, action-hero John McClane – a character who became a star in movie history in his own right. Willis had been on the small screen in Moonlighting, and won a Golden Globe and an Emmy, but his move into the action genre was the moment he went stratospheric and that folks… is definitely down to the terrific world of Die Hard. Of course, we had the likes of Sly Stallone and Arnie doing their thing but it’s the everyman factor that makes Willis’ McClane stand up above the rest, and he wasn’t even wearing shoes or socks.

Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History starts us off with a foreword from the director of the first movie, John McTiernan. It’s crazy to that this film might have never existed in this form but, as McTiernan comments in his intro, thanks to Joel Silver and a whole sequence of accidental perfect timing in production; they got the show on the road at just the right time. What’s particularly interesting about learning this is also how he formed the narrative into a story that producers actually took on, and you’ve got to remember this was an era where they didn’t back everything they didn’t quite understand, but there was something different and we’re forever thankful in the film world that it began back then.

There’s little doubt that I learned a lot of things in this book, somehow I didn’t know it was loosely based on Roderick Thorp’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever, or how Jeb Stuart and (eventually) Steven de Souza, Silver and McTiernan moulded it into something more accessible to a modern audience, one that wanted action with innovation and that’s just the tip of the Die Hard franchise iceberg. They also recall and include a deleted atrium scene storyboard, in a neat ‘glued in’ extra, complete with imagery from the scene we never saw where McClane has to dodge a swinging elevator car, plus so many on set shots, pages of original script and more storyboards of story plans.

But, not forgetting one important thing, this book isn’t just about the first film, it’s about the world that spawned from those initial iconic moments. Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History takes us into Die Hard 2 and how they argued between snow or fog, before realising fog was – quite frankly – a stupid idea and snow also meant they could keep the Christmas connection. The book also talks about the tonal changes, despite being a similar setup in a different location, and how the team picked up Walter Wager’s 58 Minutes novel and subtly kept out Joel Silver in the early stages of development, as they secretly began to write the sequel… even though later on the same team from the first film came together.



Stepping further inside the assemblage, the book investigates each film to its roots and with it is some epic discoveries, including the sheer lack of script for Die Hard III. If anything connects these Die Hard films, other than John McClane, it’s undoubtedly a continual upheaval of staff, plans and ideas but when did that ever stop a huge film coming to fruition?  It’s also interesting to discover that, as I thought, the majority of the movies try and fit to a practical effect ethos, with Bruce doing as many stunts as he can – in that Tom Cruise sense – which offers the audience an extra association to the good stuff.

The book also contains some crafty ‘pull-out’ art from script ideas, to sketches of storyboard including the aforementioned atrium scene storyboard. You get the photos in McClane’s wallet, plus ace studio shots of Bruce getting into his action poses. Die Hard also wouldn’t be half the world it was without Alan Rickman and they include a nice Gruber touch with some surveillance images, hidden away in a little pouch. These additions break up all the insider information and make it interactive. This isn’t over done; it creates a real sense of research, which is good for any fan of the series and, a tip, head to the very back of the book when you’ve finished it.

James Mottram, with David S. Cohen, has compiled one hell of a beast of a book with no facet uncovered. Moving from film to film, they open up aspects that haven’t been seen in the previous films and also offer real, detailed information from start to finish. It’s massive but it’ll let you into the world like never before and, just so we’re clear, Die Hard is definitely a Christmas film. Right?

Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History is available now in USA here:

Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History is also available now in the UK here:

Don’t forget to check your local cinema for 30th Anniversary screenings of Die Hard this 7 December:

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