The Wit and Wisdom of Hans Gruber
By Anne Perry
Posted on February 5, 2015 in Film with tags Die Hard, Hans Gruber, Villains
Hans Gruber: a keen mind, a good education, a sharp sense of style and some killer ambition combine to make him one of the greatest villains in cinema history. Well, that and Alan Rickman’s sandy growl.
Die Hard is notable for several things: it’s the best Christmas movie ever made (take that, It’s a Wonderful Life); it’s really good; it’s really fun; and it features some stonking dialogue.
So today we’re going to examine what might be one of the most famous lines in cinema history:
And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.
Sugh a lovely, evocatove quote, suggesting such epic scope, such sweeping breadth. Alexander the Great, greatest Alexander of them all. There he is, toga-clad, Adonis-like hair whipping in a gentle wind as he stands atop a cliff and considers his life’s achievement, and weeps for he has done all a human can do – there is nothing left for him. So classical! So classy! Of course Hans Gruber would purr those words; he’s a man who understands and appreciates ambition.
So, what’s he actually quoting? Hans-baby claims it’s Plutarch (‘Benefits of a classical education’) but… he might not be right. Let’s investigate!
As I’m sure you don’t need to be told, Alexander the Great pretty much conquered everything, back in the day. He was mad successful, good looking, had a great education (was tutored by Aristotle and slept with a copy of The Illiad under his pillow, or so the legend goes – it might even have been a first edition !) All… very much like our own dear Hans.
But did he actually weep when he realized he’d won the great game of life?
(cough cough obligatory Buffy gif cough)
Well… probably not. The quote that sainted Hans bastardized up there is probably the product of an unholy union between Plutarch and John Calvin – yes, the Protestant Reformation dude (and inspiration for one-half of a famous cartoon duo) – by way of Reader’s Digest and The Twilight Zone.
Plutarch, who lived a couple of centuries after Alexander, wrote in On the Tranquility of Mind that ‘Alexander wept when he heard Anaxarchus discourse about an infinite number of worlds, and when his friends inquired what ailed him, “Is it not worthy of tears,” he said, “that, when the number of worlds is infinite, we have not yet become lords of a single one?’
Later, Calvin – who lived many centuries after both Plutarch and Alexander – changed the quote up so that, now, Alexander ‘hearing that there were other worlds, wept that he had not yet conquered one.’
You’ll notice that Plutarch and Ol’ Johnny C are saying that Alexander wept because he learned there were more worlds out there* (one wonders which worlds he was looking at, considering the fact that in Alexander’s time, the other planets were believed to be a special kind of wandering star), and he hadn’t even mastered his own yet. It’s kind of a downer, right? Makes Alexander look young, ambitious, and kind of like a cry-baby, all ‘ugh, I want it nooowww.’ It’s not quite the enobling quotation that Hans busts out. So maybe it was Reader’s Digest that changed things around?
The short answer is: I don’t know for certain.
Unfortunately, I can’t follow the Reader’s Digest information to its source because the attribution appears on a Wikiquote page, and then everything else online cites that. But here’s what the Wikiquote page says:
There are no more worlds to conquer!
Statement portrayed as a quotation in a 1927 Reader’s Digest article, this probably derives from traditions about Alexander lamenting at his father Philip‘s victories that there would be no conquests left for him, or that after his conquests in Egypt and Asia there were no worlds left to conquer. [source]
Things to note: the quote is now by Alexander about his father, but much more like the Hans Gruber quote we know and love.
So how’d this mishmash of a quote (that puts its speaker in a rather less than flattering light) wind up being the rousing summation of Hans Gruber’s ambition? Well, there’s another stop we have to make on our journey from Alexander’s tears to Hans Gruber’s mouth: The Twilight Zone.
The 1963 episode of the groundbreaking anthology show, ‘Of Late I Think of Cliffordville‘, is devoted to a single premise: karma is kind of a nasty customer. (Julie Newmar, one of the actresses who played Catwoman on the 1960s Batman tv show, is in ‘Cliffordville’ – it’s well worth watching, as much for the bad age-makeup and shaky acting as for the quote.) ‘Cliffordville’ opens with a robber-baron at the end of his life, drunkenly conversing/monologuing with a janitor about ambition, and in this conversation we find the seeds of Hans Gruber’s great qutation:
Feathersmith [rich old guy who will get his come-uppance by the end of the episode]: I’ve got everything there is to get but I’m still hungry.
Hecate [janitor who will also get what he deserves – money and fame – by the end of the episode]: [quoting] ‘He cried because he had no more worlds to conquer.’
Hecate: That was Alexander the Great. He cried because he had no more worlds to conquer.
Anyway! ‘Cliffordville’ is based on a 1943 short story, ‘Blind Alley’, by Malcolm Jameson. I haven’t read it! So I don’t know whether this scene is there or whether Rod Sterling inserted it into the Twilight Zone episode. What’s important is that, in ‘Cliffordville,’ the quote is worded almost exactly the same way it is in Die Hard, and to mean exactly the same thing: that hollow, disappointed feeling you get when you realize you’ve achieved everything you set out to do. Finish a book, conquer about two million square miles of land, steal a lot of money, whatever.
Either way, it looks like Hans Gruber’s education wasn’t 100% classical.
Sorry, Hans. Don’t worry, we still love you.
* Yes, in this case, ‘worlds’ is fancy-schmancy talk for ‘other countries.’ I just wanted to throw some Ptolemaic astronomy in there for my homeboys.