Director Richard Donner (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)

Richard Donner: an underrated director

Suggestions that Donner was a director-for-hire rather than a true auteur are harsh and inaccurate

Artillery Row

The death of the film director Richard Donner at the age of 91 has led to the usual outpouring of tributes, from figures both expected and more unorthodox. Steven Spielberg, who produced Donner’s 1986 family film The Goonies, described him as “a kid…all heart” and said: “Being in his circle was akin to hanging out with your favourite coach, smartest professor, fiercest motivator, most endearing friend, staunchest ally, and — of course — the greatest Goonie of all.”

Meanwhile, his most consistent collaborator Mel Gibson, who appeared in six films that Donner directed, declared:

Donner! My friend, my mentor. Oh, the things I learned from him! He undercut his own talent and greatness with a huge chunk of humility referring to himself as ‘merely a traffic cop.’ He left his ego at the door and required that of others. He was magnanimous of heart and soul, which he liberally gave to all who knew him. If we piled up all the good deeds he did, it would stretch to some uncharted place in the firmament. I will sorely miss him, with all his mischievous wit and wisdom.

If both Gibson and Spielberg’s heartfelt encomiums to a major Hollywood director felt sincere, rather than rote, there were other, less generous tributes to him. The words “journeyman”, “craftsman” and “undistinguished” were used. Even some of the more generous obituaries have suggested that Donner was ultimately a competent hired hack whose wide-ranging career, which spanned everything from episodic television in the Sixties to blockbusters over many decades, subsumed any kind of personal touch to a mechanical display of explosive achievement. His detractors note the obvious flops on his CV, a fondness for sequels and remakes, and an absence of any writing credit on the films that he directed, indicating that he remained a director-for-hire rather than a true auteur.

His major achievements stand alongside any of his peers in modern Hollywood cinema

This is both harsh and inaccurate. While it is hard to defend some of the weaker entries in the Donner canon (2003’s Timeline, in which a group of archaeologists travel back to 14th-century France to rescue Billy Connolly, is hilarious, but not intentionally), his major achievements stand alongside any of his peers in modern Hollywood cinema. His first cinematic release, The Omen, was not intended to be anything more than an opportunistic and relatively low-budget horror film designed to capitalise on the recent success of The Exorcist. Now, examined within the wider context of Donner’s career, it can be reassessed as an example of all of his strengths in miniature. It features an unusual and far classier cast than most genre films do, with everyone from Gregory Peck and Lee Remick to David Warner and Billie Whitelaw, and Donner’s skill with set-pieces is demonstrated brilliantly throughout, not least in Warner’s justly famous decapitation-by-pane of glass. 

Yet it was his next film, Superman, that would launch both his career, and, inadvertently, set the scene for what has become the most mendacious and unwelcome development in contemporary cinema. Donner cast the then-unknown Christopher Reeve in the dual role of the mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent and his superhero alter ego, and surrounded Reeve with a starry cast of legendary actors including the likes of Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and even, of all people, Trevor Howard. At a time when the highest-profile previous comic book adaptation had been the camp Sixties Batman TV series, Donner treated the source material with the utmost gravity, raising disposable pulp to the level of the Great American Narrative. (Someone forgot to tell Hackman, whose wry, campy performance as the villain Lex Luthor is one of the most purely entertaining in his career.) 

It was this grandiosity — complete with tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly!” — that suggested that Donner was capable of making large-scale blockbuster cinema with the best of them, although a disagreement with the producers of Superman meant that he was replaced on the sequel by the more amenable Richard Lester. The anomalous nature of production meant that the footage that Donner had completed could later be reissued in 2006 as Superman II: the Richard Donner Cut, suggesting that present-day disputes about definitive versions of films are nothing new. And it was Superman to which Christopher Nolan explicitly paid homage when he was reinventing the superhero genre in 2005 with Batman Begins; he said that, “One of the great films that I am very influenced by that we haven’t talked about was Dick Donner’s Superman… it made a huge impression on me. I can remember the trailers for it, I can remember about Superman the movie, all of that.”

Donner was a warm, highly professional man who made his films quickly and without unnecessary fuss

After the success of Superman, Donner continued to make well-regarded blockbuster entertainment for decades. The Lethal Weapon films might have been subsequently tarnished by Mel Gibson’s perennially unstable reputation, but the first two, at least, remain exciting, amusing thrillers, just as The Goonies is fondly remembered by cinemagoers of a certain age for its well-polished thrills and family-friendly comedy. When Donner did try and veer off the path of mainstream entertainment, he came unstuck. His most atypical film, Radio Flyer, attempted to combine his signature escapism with gritty realism, and was a box office flop. But he was always able to rebound from a flop with a Lethal Weapon sequel or something more unusual, such as his underrated Bill Murray comedy, Scrooged.

Donner himself was a warm, unsentimental and highly professional man who made his films quickly and without unnecessary fuss. It is appropriate that his final film, the Bruce Willis vehicle 16 Blocks, was a first-rate police procedural which offered its thrills with a pace and assurance that many younger directors would have struggled to match.

While he will never be talked of in the fashion of a Spielberg, a Nolan or a Ridley Scott, Donner’s lucrative and highly successful career is proof that, sometimes, it is possible for a film director to advance the medium and to do so in a (relatively) modest and self-effacing way, without feeling the need to shout about their brilliance. The words “a Richard Donner film” might never have connoted very much to many cinemagoers, but, in their unpretentious dedication to entertainment, his oeuvre should now be reassessed as some of the most purely enjoyable films of the past half-century. That is, perhaps, his greatest achievement of all.

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