Spielberg - the best director of all time?

The Empire magazine poll of the best 40 film directors ever carries a warning that it will make readers scream - very true, writes…

The Empire magazine poll of the best 40 film directors ever carries a warning that it will make readers scream - very true, writes Michael Dwyer

Steven Spielberg is the greatest director in "the entire history of cinema", according to the results of an online poll conducted by UK film monthly Empire and published in a glossy 32-page supplement in the July issue of the magazine, which is now on sale.

Anticipating the reaction the poll results would generate, an introductory article in the supplement begins: "Listen, before you get your blood up, we understand. You're probably going to fulminate, to scream and holler over the following results." Which is putting it mildly.

Let's start with Spielberg. He has made such powerful dramas as Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan and Sugarland Express, and such exhilarating entertainments as ET, Close Encounters, Jaws and the Indiana Jones trilogy.

But have those Empire readers seen 1941, Hook, The Color Purple, Amistad, and the second Jurassic Park movie, The Lost World? These are all black marks on Spielberg's career.

Then again, nobody's perfect, to quote the closing line from Some Like It Hot, directed by the brilliant Billy Wilder - who, shamefully, is placed down at 19th in the poll.

While US directors, mostly those living and working today, dominate the poll - and not one woman makes the grade - second place goes to London-born virtuoso Alfred Hitchcock, who died in 1980. Next comes Martin Scorsese, followed by the late, great Stanley Kubrick.

The first of the poll's many grating anomalies is that Ridley Scott, the only British director in the top 10 apart from Hitchcock, takes fifth place. Scott has made some fine films - Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Black Hawk Down and Gladiator - but he has also given us forgettable efforts as 1492, Legend, GI Jane and White Squall.

At least, he is a far superior director to his brother, Tony Scott - who, in arguably the most bewildering inclusion in the poll, ranks 28th. For what? Top Gun? Beverly Hills Cop II? The Last Boy Scout? The younger Scott's presence can be explained by his tenuous connection to the revered Quentin Tarantino, who scripted Scott's 1993 movie, True Romance.

Tarantino himself is placed eighth on the strength of just four movies (five if you count Kill Bill as two). Completing the top 10 are Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, who died in 1988, in sixth place, followed by Peter Jackson, the New Zealand director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in seventh, the late Orson Welles in ninth, and Woody Allen.

Making up the lower half of the top 20 are, in order: David Lean, Joel and Ethan Coen, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, Sergio Leone, John Ford, Billy Wilder and Sam Peckinpah. A respectable list, although it overrates several directors, mostly the living, and underestimates others, mostly the dead.

The lower half of the top 40 is where fulminating, screaming and hollering are prompted time after time. Incredibly, Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis (at number 22) is placed ahead of Francois Truffaut (26) and Fritz Lang (29). And George Lucas (31), Ron Howard (33) and Sam Raimi (34) are all ahead of Ingmar Bergman (36).

The remaining places on the Empire Top 40 are taken by Howard Hawks (21), Michael Mann (23), David Lynch (24), Spike Lee (25), Brian De Palma (27), Tim Burton (30), Anthony Minghella (32), Charles Chaplin (35), M. Night Shayamalan (37, no kidding), Peter Weir (38), Terry Gilliam (39) and Robert Altman (40).

WHERE ARE SUCH great Hollywood filmmakers as George Cukor, John Huston, William Wyler, Fred Zinnemann, Jospeh L Mankiewicz, Vincente Minnelli, Don Siegel and Elia Kazan? And such masters of world cinema as Luis Bunuel, Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luchino Visconti, Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Renoir, Yasujiro Ozu, FW Murnau, Carl Dreyer, Buster Keaton, Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky and Rainer Werner Fassbinder,? Dead and long forgotten, all of them, on the evidence of this poll, given that not one of them figures in the top 40.

To be fair, it should be said that the predominantly young and youngish British readers of Empire have far fewer opportunities to see the work of such gifted directors than previous generations had. BBC2 and Channel 4, consistent champions of international cinema in earlier decades, have made drastic reductions in the number of foreign-language films they show, and the few that get transmitted are relegated to the post-midnight wasteland.

It is also a fact that very many notable Hollywood movies made before the 1980s have yet to become available on video or DVD, and many more classics of world cinema have not been released here or in the UK in either format.

Even in the case of the classics that have been made available, most of them are not carried on the shelves of the major chains of video/DVD stores that dominate the market in the UK and Ireland. Thanks to enterprising online suppliers such as play.com and sendit.com, it is of course possible to buy a wide selection of what the video/DVD chain stores generally regard as minority material.

Another significant factor is that the companies that release arthouse movies on video and DVD tend to charge higher prices than the distributors of mainstream movies. There are several reasons for this. The audience for world cinema is much smaller because so many people have an aversion to sub-titles, although the recent cinema success of Downfall, Amelie and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for example, suggests that these barriers are gradually breaking down.

Most distributors of arthouse movies are much smaller companies than the outlets of the Hollywood studios, and they operate on narrow margins. And it also may well be the case that there is a perception that people who are interested in buying foreign-language movies and independent productions are those who can afford it and are willing to pay more for the privilege.