How do you measure greatness? What does one have to accomplish to be considered one of the greatest in their respective field? In the case, of film direction, is greatness dependent upon awards? Is it box office and critical success? Is it all about influence? Maybe it’s something far simpler than that which we all take for granted; doing your job so well, the audience barely even knew you were there. That’s a skilled journeyman at work and that’s exactly what kind of director Richard Donner was.
When film fans discuss the greatest directors of all time, its often noted how they have a certain style. When you’re watching a Steven Spielberg movie, you can often tell it’s a Spielberg movie. The same thing with Quentin Tarantino, Robert Zemeckis, or Alfred Hitchcock; there are details, techniques, subjects of focus, etc. that define their films. It’s hard to say that about Donner though. It’s certainly true that he had an eye for action; the chase sequences throughout all four “Lethal Weapon” movies are spectacular. Unlike the quick cuts that are frequently used in action scenes today, Donner allowed the action to play out while still maintaining a breakneck pace.
This is a far cry from something like the 1976 horror classic, “The Omen” or the 1988 Bill Murray film, “Scrooged.” One could argue that just how Donner kept up the action-packed pacing of “Lethal Weapon” he similarly knew how to keep the tension consistently rising across “The Omen” allowing for the film to maintain its sense of dread from start to finish. Throw in something like “Scrooged” though and you start to see how Donner could work so well across all genres because he didn’t need to put a certain “stamp” on a film. “Scrooged” is effectively funny in the same way “Lethal Weapon” is effectively frenetic and “The Omen” is horrific.
Maybe this is because of how much Donner did in the television industry before turning to blockbuster films. Throughout the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Donner was a prolific television director, working on some of the biggest series of the time that would come to define that era. Shows like “Have Gun, Will Travel,” “Combat!,” “The Rifelman,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Get Smart,” “The Wild Wild West,” and “Kojak” among others. Also notable are the 6 episodes of “The Twilight Zone” he directed for the show’s 5th season. Including the absolutely iconic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” where William Shatner sees a monster on the wing of the passenger plane he’s flying in.
Television directing frequently requires a level of consistency from episode to episode, something that Donner very much exceled in. Based on the fact that Donner directed “Lethal Weapon,” you could easily make a joke about how a “Gilligan’s Island” episode by him would turn into a buddy cop story with The Skipper and Gilligan trying to take down a gang of coconut smugglers. But watch any of those first season episodes he directed, and you’ll see they’re just as standard as any other.
And what about Donner’s “Superman” film of 1978? In 2021, Superman movies are associated with Zack Snyder and his dark, gritty, style over substance approach to filmmaking. “Man of Steel” comes across very much as a Snyder interpretation of Superman just like “Batman Begins” feels like a Christopher Nolan interpretation of Batman, just as “Batman” (1989) feels like a Tim Burton version of Batman. But “Superman” doesn’t feel like a director’s vision of Superman; it just feels like the character. Plot contrivances about time-travel aside in that film, it’s a remarkably strong, memorable, and heartfelt film where Donner allowed Christopher Reeve to become Superman. Not Richard Donner’s Superman, just Superman.
Donner was the kind of director whose style was not to let you know it was him behind the camera. The only clue you’d have is knowing that you’d seen something that was very well paced, perfectly shot, and felt like the characters were driving the story, rather than a writer or director. Perhaps this is why Donner was able to do so well across television, film, and multiple genres; he knew how to let the characters tell their stories.
There are other projects Donner worked on and directed, including “The Goonies,” “Tales from the Crypt,” the film adaptation of “Maverick” and more. To try and sum up everything he did would be an exhaustive process, especially with how much he did for television in the formative years where more serious and complex stories were being told. His legacy will be one of expert craftsmanship; where a keen eye and a steady hand could produce wonderful results without being ostentatious. And in that legacy is something we could all do well to remember; sometimes all it takes to excel at your job is to do it well and do it with heart.
“Dick had such a powerful command of his movies, and was so gifted across so many genres. Being in his circle was akin to hanging out with your favorite coach, smartest professor, fiercest motivator, most endearing friend, staunchest ally, and — of course — the greatest Goonie of all,” Spielberg said in a statement to Variety. “He was all kid. All heart. All the time. I can’t believe he’s gone, but his husky, hearty laugh will stay with me always.”