Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick did it 12 times each. Andrei Tarkovsky, Carl Theordore Dreyer and France’s renowned comic director Pierre Etaix managed it about half that many times apiece. Etaix’s inspiration, the great Jacques Tati only got to the number five. Jean Vigo, Charles Laughton and Marlon Brando only pulled it off once each. The “it” in question is completing a feature length motion picture.
Those who study film history and/or those who are film fans often extol the virtues of the great dreamers/mavericks who make films. These are the individualists who never compromised in putting their visions on the screen, usually to see those visions go unappreciated for the decades it takes the public to catch up to these visionaries. This is all very noble, in a poetically grande sort of way, but if all film makers were cut from such cloth, the film industry would cease to exist, if only from lack of product.
There are many fine directors out there and many prolific directors who know how to play the film industry’s game and have healthy careers. These film makers are not, by any means, always the same people. However, there does exist a cross-section of those who are in both camps.
As this following list illuminates, some of these individuals had their fair share of knocks but, unlike many of the visionaries who ended up going for years at a time without producing a film, they managed to get back on their feet and keep going. No, not every film they made was a masterpiece but they endured to quite often make another masterpiece.
1. John Ford (years active: 1917-1966)
If there has to be a champion on this list for both quality and quantity, hands down that man is John Ford. Involved in the film business for almost half a century, he made over 140 films (not all still exist, sadly) encompassing “serious” drama (The Informer, 1935, The Grapes of Wrath, 1940, How Green Was My Valley,1941), comedy (The Whole Town’s Talking, 1935, Donovan’s Reef, 1963), period films (Judge Priest, 1934, and its remake The Sun Shines Bright, 1953, The Quiet Man, 1952), Americana (Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk, both 1939), war films (They Were Expendable, 1945), and, above all, westerns, some of the greatest in the medium (from 1924’s The Iron Horse to 1939’s seminal Stagecoach to 1956’s now enshrined The Searchers, and many others).
If awards are ones measure, he won more than anyone, including four Oscars for directing (mostly for the wrong films, though) and two for the stunning documentaries he made while on active duty in World War II. The basic thing about him, though, is that he was as individualistic as any director.
The themes of his films (people’s codes of integrity, the unspoken social contacts which govern groups, the clash of civilization verses natural order, etc) have been studied and analyzed by many and no one could mistake a frame of a John Ford film for any other’s. Several, including Welles himself, have proclaimed Ford the greatest of US film makers.
2. Akira Kurosawa (1936-1993)
There is a good case to be made for Akira Kurosawa being the “John Ford of Japan”. Both men had long careers. Both made notable films in many genres. Both were distinctive artists who set their stamps on their films so surely that a film directed by them could only be viewed as one of their own films.
Though no one could quite match Ford’s numbers among quality directors, Kurosawa’s 30 films are a fine number in a career that, surprisingly, didn’t always flow smoothly. He apprenticed in the Japanese film industry for nearly a decade before finally getting his directorial career started in 1943 with the period drama Sanshiro Sugata.
Even then the powers that be considered his work “too western” a charge that would haunt him throughout his career and even shadows his reputation to this day. However, that very quality might be what opened the door to him becoming among the first Japanese film makers to crack the international market.
His breakthrough was the still influential period drama Rashomon in 1950, with such films as the highly dramatic Ikiru (1952), the astounding adventure drama Seven Samurai (or The Magnificent Seven, 1954), the adventure comedy The Hidden Fortress (1958) and the comic adventure Yojimbo (1961) and its sequel Sanjuro (1962), among many others (and its no coincidence that several of these were remade in the west) standing out.
However, despite this acclaim, often more abroad than at home, funding to dried up in the 1970s and, at one point, the despairing Kurosawa attempted suicide. Thankfully, things picked back up (mostly due to western appreciation and funding) and he went on to fill out his award winning career with such late triumphs as Kagemusha (1980) and the superb Ran (1985).
3. Werner Rainer Fassbinder (1965-1982)
Unlike many on this list, (West) Germany’s Werner Rainer Fassbinder was not an “old master”. In point of fact, he didn’t live long enough to be an old anything and those who knew the problematic, highly difficult, yet tightly focused and talented Fassbinder were only amazed the self immolating end took so long to happen.
However, look at the figures: he was 37 years old at the time of his death and had directed 40 films! He also took time out to act in the films of others! He was clearly like a candle quickly burning itself out and his films have that quality as well.
Unlike Ford or Kurosawa, Fassbinder was not versatile. If there is a lighter moment in his films, it’s purely unintentional. He venerated the feverish melodramas of German born Hollywood studio director Douglas Sirk and sought to find a modern equivalent to that director’s lush and ironic style of heightened emotional drama.
Being the child of a later age, he was able to incorporate more modern (often sexual) elements into his films, quite often against the backdrop of Germany’s turbulent 20th Century social history. Writing his own films and incorporating a “stock company” cast and regular crew, he was able to provide high quality work at a rapid rate. See such masterworks as The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), Veronica Voss (1982) and the massive Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).
4. Werner Herzog (1962-present)
Perhaps the name Werner (admittedly not uncommon in German speaking countries) was lucky for the German New Wave. Though quite different from Fassbinder both as an artist and human being, Herzog was the other quite formidable talent in the movement. Unlike his-destructive counterpart, Herzog has a reputation for being highly disciplined and contained.
Also unlike Fassbinder, forever taken with Hollywood artifice and fiction (albeit in a scabrous manner), Herzog is interested in the real world and interesting stories contained therein. In the middle of the voluminous career (68 films and counting), he switched from feature films to documentary (equally successfully both ways). This is not truly surprising since examining his filmography reveals that a large number of even his fictionalized films are fact based.
The heart of his work is often thought to be the five films in the cycle of his often vituperative collaboration with actor Klaus Kinski (a number fact based, such as the famed Aguirre, the Wrath of God in 1972 and Fiztcarraldo in 1982), which, appropriately, was given a coda in the form of an tribute (sort of) documentary, My Best Fiend (1999).
5. Fritz Lang (1919-1960)
Yet another German, but far from the New Wave, Lang was more at the forefront of the old guard, not that he ever rested on that laurel. Starting in Germany’s impoverished but creatively rich post-World War I film industry (and he had fought in the war), Lang became the glory of that country’s film world with his astounding large scale (and very long) films such as Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (1921), Die Niebelungen (1922) and the still famous Metropolis (1926), moving into smaller scale, darker, crime oriented films with the 1931 masterpiece M (his first sound film). Political events caused him to flee first to France, then to Hollywood.
His 46 films in 40 years may seem a smallish amount for a “golden age” director but Lang had to endure the fact that he never gained but so sure a foothold in his new homeland, despite such fine films in the tradition of M as Fury (1936), You Only Live Once (1938), The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945) and a big hit, The Big Heat (1953). (Lang was, by all counts, quite a handful and never stayed at any studio for long.) Still, he created a mighty and comprehensible oeuvre.
6. Howard Hawks (1926-1970)
Howard Hawks was and is the best friend of the auteur set. His 46 films are truly coherent as the work of one strong individual, despite a legion of writers, cinematographers, producers/studio heads, and actors contributing (however much or little) along the way. Hawks was, on the surface, quite versatile, creating action/adventure films, comedies, war dramas, westerns and even musicals (!).
However, under the surfaces, there were always sturdy men who lived by their own highly professional codes of honor, strong women who were not unduly feminine in dealing with their men and rising to the men’s level, a sense of humor informing even the most dramatic of situations, and camaraderie based on a high level of achievement and expectation with no undue sentiment.
All of this being said, Hawks was and is quite modern in his attitudes, surprisingly in a genre film makers (and, make no mistake, all his films were genre pieces of some kind). The surprise is that he handled all the genres quite well with many standout films such as The Big Sleep (1946), His Girl Friday (1940), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Air Force (1943) and that auteurist staple, Rio Bravo (1959).