The Greatest Directors: The Pioneers


Clockwise from the top left: D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock

In an earlier Moment In History article, we brought you our selection of the greatest historical films ever made. Many of the men who are credited with the directing of those movies are also considered among the best and most influential directors of all time. In this article we take a look at some of the best directing talent Hollywood has had to offer.

The director is the lynchpin of any movie production. He is the person who controls the making of a film down to the smallest of details. He brings the script and its author's vision to the big screen through expert guidance of both the crew and cast. Over the years directors have taken very different approaches to their role. Some micro-manage down to the smallest detail whereas others take a macro approach, giving more leeway to the cast and crew.

Since the inception of film-making there has been thousands of directors, some good, some bad, and some great! What follows is a list of who we feel are some of the most influential directors and a brief summary of their careers. Twenty of the brightest lights in the industry, both past and present. To help reduce the amount of reading in one sitting, the article has been broken up into three parts; The Pioneers, The Early Contemporaries and The New Breed. The first part features the directors we consider The Pioneers.

Order is based on first feature length movie directed. Pictures are courtesy of Wikipedia.


D.W. Griffith: Griffith is credited, along with Cecil B. DeMille, as being one of the first directors to move to Hollywood (in 1910) and begin making films in and around that area, instead of on the east coast as previously had been done. He directed over 400 films in his career, including the first ever feature length movie (i.e. well over one hour in length), Birth of a Nation, in 1915. Although Griffith directed over 350 films before this, he will always be remembered as the director of Birth of a Nation. Unfortunately, the film openly depicts racism and the Ku Klux Klan as misunderstood, displaying them as near-heroes. The movie caused rioting at many showings and Griffith's whole career has been judged since then on this one film. Indeed, even in 1999, almost 85 years after the film was made, his name was removed from the Screen Directors Guild lifetime achievement award which had been created in 1953.

Yet those who still believe in the greatness and influence of D.W. Griffith view the years between 1918 and 1925 as his zenith. Some of the great films made during this period include; Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Isn't Life Wonderful (1924).


Cecil B. DeMille: Known mainly for his twilight year's huge epic pictures, DeMille could be more importantly viewed as one of the Fathers of Hollywood film as mentioned above in D.W. Griffith's section. DeMille developed a larger-than-life persona and was viewed as an icon in the industry and a great showman. In 1914 Cecil B. DeMille's silent film Squaw Man was finished and became the first to be completely produced in a Hollywood studio. The fifteen year period after the making of Squaw Man was actually his most popular and critically acclaimed, and not the epic pictures of the 1950s. Such great films of that period include; Don't Change Your Husband (1919), The Ten Commandments (1923), and The King of Kings (1927).

During the 1930s and 1940s he continued to make good films but most did not create the buzz of these earlier films. Then with the 1949 production of the epic movie Samson and Delilah DeMille made something of a comeback. The last two movies he directed, also big epics and big budget movies were The Greatest Show On Earth (1952), which won him a Best Director Oscar, and a new colour version of The Ten Commandments (1956).


John Ford: John Ford was an extremely influential American director who has been named by some of his peers as the greatest director of all time. Orson Welles is said to have watched 1940's Stagecoach dozens of times before making Citizen Kane in 1941, and Ingmar Bergman called him "the greatest director to have ever lived!"

Ford began his movie industry career as a small-role actor throughout the early and mid-1910s. Then in 1917 he turned his eye toward directing. He created almost 60 silent films at the beginning of his career, credited as Jack Ford for many of these. Then in 1928 he made his first sound film, and even then only partial sound, called Mother Machree. Another interesting point of this first sound film is that it also had John Wayne in the cast, although with a small role. This was to be the first of many pairings between the two Johns.

Ford made 140 movies over his 50 year career, many of them westerns or adaptions of popular 20th century American stories. Some of Ford's greatest and most popular movies included the previously mentioned Stagecoach, as well as; The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man (1952). These last four movies all won him Best Director Academy Awards and to date Ford is still the only director to have received four awards in that category.


Alfred Hitchcock: Hitchcock began his directorial career in his native Britain, making both silent movies and "talkies" in the 1920s. During his 60 year career he directed over 60 feature films. Unfortunately some of his earliest pictures, from 1921-1924, have been lost or are incomplete. Currently the oldest surviving film is 1925's The Pleasure Garden. In 1939 he moved to California and continued his already influential and astounding career with a string of excellent movies.

Although most prominently known for his later thriller movies from the 1950s and 1960s, Hitchcock had actually quite a diverse catalogue of movies; from comedies [Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)] to dramas [The Paradine Case(1947)]. He also embraced the television format, and began the Hitchcock Presents series on NBC with it's iconic introduction of Hitchcock's profile in silhouette, and persuaded others to also embrace television, including Robert Altman.

The pinnacle of Hitchcock's career was the 1950s. Movies that came out of this period included; Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), and To Catch a Thief (1955). Then of course two of Hitchcock's most well known movies were released in 1960, Psycho and The Birds. His output lessened after those two movies with only 4 movies between them and 1976's Family Plot, Hitchcock's last movie. Alfred Hitchcock is probably the most studied director ever, with knowing his movies inside and out being a pre-requisite for any graduating film student.



Next time look for part 2 of our look at the great directors, these are those directors we call: The Early Contemporaries.

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