Tom Jolliffe ponders the question: who is the greatest director of all time?
One of the toughest of tough film related questions. Who is the greatest director ever? Think over all the icons throughout history. There have been countless, many who crossed from silent to sound, such as Fritz Lang, Carl Theodore Dreyer, D.W Griffith and more. Many may not be aware that Alfred Hitchcock, prior to gaining more notoriety, began in silent pictures, a career spanning back to the late 20’s.
Many of these greats forged new techniques, broke new ground, rewrote the rule books. Some may look back on films of a certain era and find them dated perhaps, but some still retain absolute gripping power (Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, or Lang’s Metropolis being two great examples).
As a largely western readership, and myself included, my upbringing was first Hollywood cinema and British. Those initial icons being directors from the west, and only upon realising later, had been directly influenced by a lot of Euro cinema, or Asian cinema. Pinpointing the most iconic director of all time is difficult and you might have to go all the way back to a train coming into a station, or maybe to the first narrative film like The Great Train Robbery (by Edwin S. Porter, 1903). Still, given over a century since of honing techniques and the craft, you’d say his vision and abilities have been surpassed.
If you’re asking me who the greatest living director is I’d probably give it to Martin Scorsese. In terms of iconic, influential work, and consistency, he’s done this for over 50 years and is still going strong. Marty, as an avid adorer of cinema of course owes much to a lot of great directors who preceded. He’s named countless examples over the years from all corners of the world. His love of the gangster/crime genre tips a cap back to the golden era in Hollywood through the 30’s and 40’s, and probably particularly through the 50’s when he was growing up and beginning to lose himself to film. Is he the greatest ever?
Grasping an answer is tough. You take into factors. Perhaps some directors had a reasonably short but telling impact on cinema, or weren’t prolific. Andrei Tarkovsky made 7 films, spreading over 20 years. Widely considered one of the greats and an icon, he was taken before his time (but never made a film that was less than excellent). How might he compare with a man who he shared an enormous mutual respect with, Akira Kurosawa? The latter of course another icon and candidate for GOAT. He was certainly more prolific, creating films from pre to post war (and the latter of which, where he began to find more creative freedom), and going right until the early 90’s before his death.
In terms of the shape of films today, you could argue someone like Kurosawa has the most direct influence on cinema still. If blockbuster action currently rules the box office, then the blueprint was significantly altered and laid with Seven Samurai. Further, and here’s a potentially key area where he may have an advantage over some others, Kurosawa didn’t do bad films. He certainly swung below par, but he never misfired too badly.
Another director who had a significant impact, whose work remains fresh and powerful, was Ingmar Bergman. His influence has stretched over a world cinema having found himself under the spotlight during a time of booming influence in world cinema. The US, the UK, were open to the works of Kurosawa, to Bergman, Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni and more. Bergman’s forte in particular was very personal, very intimate drama focused on the repressed parts of human psyche. He went deep into the persona of his characters exploring faith, religion, sexuality, repression, desire and more. Bergman probably explored the within to a degree very few had done before, and in a way very few have matched since. Again, he would be up there.
Aesthetically certainly, all these directors have distinct, very individual visual style. How many truly individual directors are there in the modern age? There aren’t when compared to an age where cinematic expression and creativity was paramount. Indeed, that early 70’s era which saw the boom of Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott, all hit cinema like a whirlwind. In some cases they didn’t quite match the early promise, or they fell foul of indulgence, but it was an era in American cinema of almost unbridled creativity, particularly with a wave of film school grads who made their way into the business a different way than the traditional avenues through the classic era (where knowing the right people, or getting a back way into one of the studios was the only way).
It seems perhaps nowadays, particularly in studio set ups the directors vision isn’t as important as the studios vision. In some ways that indeed mirrors the 30’s to 50’s in Hollywood, where rule breakers like Orson Welles were an exception, willing to gamble on black-list to maintain their fresh approach to cinema. Brazenly flouting the rules. We don’t see that quite so much these days, but then, it was rare enough back in the day I suppose. A hit would normally ensure that there was a little less battle the next time (in Welles’ case, Citizen Kane bombed initially).
Likewise, when you look at how fiercely determined Welles was initially. How much of a perfectionist, with every aspect figured to the most minute detail, it was the sign of a director who couldn’t be shifted from his vision. He perhaps lost that fire as his career proceeded, slightly overtaken by his own infamy. Kubrick was another director who was almost pedantically obsessive in his shoots. Take upon take, with every tiny detail under his command. He pushed boundaries and broke ground. Another trailblazer, with a distinct visual style. Likewise his film career, though in actuality not that prolific in quantity, was a wide and alluring mix across five decades. He covered most genres, managing to become utterly iconic in all of them, from Spartacus, Lolita, Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket, A Clockwork Orange, 2001 and The Shining. Even those films that were quite as iconic, were still works of brilliance like Barry Lyndon, The Killing (which owed a little to Rashomon, and in turn influenced a whole slew of narratively complex crime films like Quentin Tarantino’s early work).
Guys like Welles, Kubrick, to a lesser extent Scott and James Cameron, were complete nightmares to work with in their earlier days (Kubrick throughout, and it shows in his ability to keep his quality high). The meticulous and obsessive approach didn’t allow for much in the way of interpersonal skills. If Scott and Cameron’s respective careers promised more than they perhaps delivered (in terms of putting themselves in the all time greats camp) it may be down to a muting of that obsession, but indeed culturally, society has changed. Kubrick couldn’t make The Shining and drive Shelley Duvall half mad if he made it in 2020. Not that it’s nice, but that was the price the people involved paid, to be a part of cinematic iconography.
A director having made 50 films and striking masterful levels 10 times has perhaps more chance of being considered the greatest ever that someone who’s CV is shorter but near perfect (Tarkovsky). Indeed, if you look at Alfred Hitchcock for example. A long and prolific career. He redefined genres and had that obsessive nature too. Even at the point his powers were tailing off, he still had time to swing out a few great punches like Frenzy. Then again, he was largely confined to the thriller, mystery and espionage genres. Was he as flexible as say Kubrick? Or even Scorsese and Spielberg?
If I tried to nail my choice down now it would be hard. Many of the aforementioned legends would be up there, certainly Hitch, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kubrick and Kurosawa. Others like David Lean too. Scorsese would also be tantalisingly close and he’s still going. Uwe Boll. He’s got to be in the mix, surely?
You guys will have to tell me. Who IS the greatest director of all time? Lets us know your thoughts in the comments below or on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch) and Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.