Ranking the Directors of The James Bond Franchise

Dr. No James Bond

From journeymen to auteurs, we rank the 007 helmers.

With Bond 25 creeping towards its November 2019 release date, there’s still uncertainty surrounding who exactly will be taking the reigns of this globetrotting behemoth. Danny Boyle has been eyed to direct, but that isn’t stopping him working on other projects, and there’s always ’71 director Yann Demange waiting in the wings. But what kind of lineage would they be joining? We ranked the James Bond movies in preparation for Spectre, but now it’s time to rank the eleven Bond directors. The order is based on their direction of the franchise and doesn’t account for any of their non-Bond work. So this isn’t the best directors who made James Bond films, but who did the best work in the series.

Early on, franchise producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman favored returning directors. The first 16 official EON Bond films (Sean Connery through Timothy Dalton) had just five different people in the director’s chair. This was followed by the Pierce Brosnan era, where each film had a new director. Then, Daniel Craig‘s Bond marked a return to the glory days of using the same directors for multiple films. Should the franchise go with Boyle for the next film, he’d be something of an outlier. The franchise isn’t known for hiring big-name auteurs.  Should everything go according to plan, we’ll know just how good a fit Boyle is in a couple years time.

Red Dots

11. Lee Tamahori — Die Another Day (2002)

Brosnan’s final film, Die Another Day, isn’t totally without merit. The film’s craziness is engaging in its own way, but still, New Zealander Lee Tamahori didn’t really get Bond. Tamahori was best known for his feature debut, Once Were Warriors, a lauded drama about a Māori family living in New Zealand. He tried to bring some of his indie ideas to this huge blockbuster, but the resulting ice hotels and invisible cars were a step or two beyond Bond’s most ludicrous moments and turned the film too far towards the realm of generic CGI-laden blockbusters. The film was a financial success — it was the franchise’s highest grossing film at the time (in adjusted dollars) — but Die Another Die didn’t really resonate and resulted in the Craig-fronted reboot four years later.

10. Michael Apted — The Wold is Not Enough (1999)

Another Brosnan director, Michael Apted’s The World is Not Enough is arguably more boring than Die Another Day. However, the film still feels more recognizably Bond. The entertaining boat chase across London –the second half of the longest cold open in the franchise– is a fun way to start. Apted also draws solid performances out of the villainous duo of Sophie Marceau and Robert Carlyle. It’s more safe and easy work from a journeyman director who’s spent his extensive, and impressively diverse, career working between television (Rome, Masters of Sex) and film (Gorillas in the Mist, The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

9. Marc Forster — Quantum of Solace (2008)

Quantum Of Solace

This is a big step up. Quantum of Solace may have a bad reputation as the black sheep of the Craig era, but director Marc Forster delivered an impressive final product given the production adversities. The film was hit badly by the 2007 writers’ strike, with co-writer Paul Haggis delivering his final draft just two hours before the beginning of the strike. This left Forster and Craig in charge of on-the-day rewrites. Somehow, Forster turned these shambles into a striking and raw 21st century Bond film. It is, however, something of an outlier. It’s by far the shortest 007 film, and the film’s pacing is out of sync with the franchise canon. Despite this, Forster assembles the bare bones into a ferocious and violent revenge thriller, a far cry from his dramatic credentials (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland). The film is also very eye-catching, with a sparse visual style that channels the four elements. That being said, for all of Quantum of Solace’s impressive individual elements, especially given the circumstances, Forster’s compromised final product means he can’t go down as a vintage Bond director.

8. Roger Spottiswoode — Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

The most traditional, and the best, Brosnan outing, Tomorrow Never Dies provides everything you could want from the franchise, including Jonathan Pryce’s maniacal media baron and an exciting snow-set cold open. Canadian-British director Roger Spottiswoode also got the best performance out of Brosnan. He matches the Irishman’s tonal yo-yo-ing, ensuring that his desperately serious moments don’t feel out of place against those that are more tongue-in-cheek.

7. Sam Mendes — Skyfall (2012), Spectre (2015)

Skyfall

Responsible for the first billion dollar-grossing Bond film, theater vet and Oscar-winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty) delivered a fitting greatest hits Bond film for the franchise’s 50th anniversary. Skyfall may have featured many of the 007 ingredients but, in hindsight, seems less than the sum of its parts. Nonetheless, the film’s success left current producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson desperate for him to come back. It took time, and, one would imagine, a pretty hefty paycheck to entice him back for Spectre. With Blofeld’s classic villainous organization back in play after a protracted copyright stalemate, Mendes took the series back to the over-the-top bombast of the Roger Moore era. The result was fun and fittingly “big”, but it lacked the emotional resonance of Skyfall and got bogged down in out of place franchise meddling (Blofeld’s brother from another mother etc.).

6. Guy Hamilton — Goldfinger (1964), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), Live and Let Die (1973), The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

One of the classic Bond directors, Guy Hamilton turned down an offer to direct Dr. No but later jumped on the bandwagon with Goldfinger. The third 007 film is undoubtedly a classic, though not as sophisticated as its predecessor, From Russia with Love. It was, unfortunately, a high he wouldn’t match. He went on to take charge of Connery’s return to the franchise after an Australian male model-shaped detour, but Diamonds are Forever marked the franchise’s descent into campiness. You Only Live Twice has its fair share of laughable moments, but Diamonds was a crazy course “correction” after the grounded On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The silliness lingered on into the Hamilton-started Moore era (Kananga balloon anyone?). Moore may not be everyone’s favorite Bond — and Hamilton’s final entry, The Man with the Golden Gun, is a particularly bum note — but Hamilton, who knew Bond author Ian Fleming from their Navy days, deserves credit for introducing the world to the longest-serving Bond (Moore with seven films).

5. Lewis Gilbert — You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Moonraker (1979)

The Spy Who Loved Me

Bond stalwart Lewis Gilbert tragically passed away recently at the grand age of 97. He is responsible for three of the most memorable 007 films — the volcano one (You Only Live Twice), the underwater car one (The Spy Who Loved Me), and the space one (Moonraker). The quality varies (Spy > Twice > Moon), but the main issue is that they’re all the same movie. They all open with a big vehicle (a NASA spacecraft, a British submarine and a private space shuttle) being captured by a bigger vehicle, and end with huge army-on-army battles. It’s an enjoyable format, but Gilbert’s Bond resume doesn’t have much in the way of variation. It’s particularly surprising given he has one of the most acclaimed and distinctive filmographies of all these directors. Character-driven films like Alfie and Educating Rita are classics in their own right, and you’d think he could have brought some of that variation to his Bond pictures.

4. Martin Campbell — GoldenEye (1995), Casino Royale (2006)

There’s no doubt about it, Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale is the Bond masterpiece. It combined the classic cool of 60s era Bond, with an updated political nous, a terrific new Bond actor and a “Bond girl” to die for, Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. On the other hand, Campbell’s franchise debut, GoldenEye, lacks any of that magic, although that could be attributed to the fact that it was the first Bond film not to use any Fleming-originated story elements. Brosnan’s first film is serviceable but feels stuck between the camp of Moore and the techno “thrills” of the films to come. Unlike his work with Craig, Campbell failed to immediately establish Brosnan in the role. Nevertheless, the New Zealand director should be commended for taking on two new actors.

3. Peter Hunt — On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

Ohmss

Peter Hunt was an early outlier, directing just a single film. After working as an editor and second unit director on the previous films, Hunt took over the reins for the first non-Connery Bond outing. The result was a grounded emotional epic with gorgeous cinematography and action work. Dismissed upon release, Steven Soderbergh, among others, has encouraged a growing reappraisal of George Lazenby’s lone outing, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It now stands out as one of the very best Bond films. Hunt paved the way for so much of the series to come. His editing background came into its own as he crafted brutally physical action scenes. The influence of these scenes can still be felt to this day, both in the franchise and the action genre in general. The excitement is brilliantly sustained across the 140-minute running time –it remains one of the longest films in the series, and is undoubtedly the first Bond epic– by Hunt’s ability to mine such personal emotional depths from a previously unshakable hero. It may not have been the financial success Eon were after, but Hunt’s OHMSS did introduce the idea of a different face as the iconic hero, which was a huge task for a first-time filmmaker. Also, as Soderbergh notes, Hunt directs the shit out of this film with the confidence of an experienced maverick. The fact he took charge of just one film holds him back from being placed any higher, but he really delivered when given the shot.

2. John Glen — For Your Eyes Only (1981), Octopussy (1983), A View to a Kill (1985), The Living Daylights (1987), Licence to Kill (1989)

John Glen directed a whopping five Bond films. This is the most of any Bond director, and the fact that he managed to do them in a row is a testament to how at home he felt in the 007 world. Prior to these five films, he had edited and handled second unit direction on three earlier ones. His direction is sometimes pegged as workmanlike for that reason, but that discounts his talent and particularly, his flair for action. Christopher Nolan is a self-professed Bond nut and he’s quiet, but overtly, included 007 tropes in all his action films, particularly Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy. The famous truck flip in The Dark Knight would be nothing without the big vehicular carnage in Licence to Kill. As for The Dark Knight Rises’ opening plane stunt, well that’s lifted directly from that same Dalton film. It’s For Your Eyes Only’s breathtaking rock climbing scene that’s most impressive, however. The simplicity of the cause and effect direction and editing is expertly handled. Glen holds off on having much score, resulting in the most nail-bitingly tense action sequence in the entire franchise. There are some weaker spots across his five-film run, but For Your Eyes Only is Moore’s pièce de résistance and Glen ended strong with the under-appreciated Licence to Kill.

1. Terrence Young — Dr. No (1962), From Russia with Love (1963), Thunderball (1965)

From Russia With Love

The number one spot goes to the prolific director who started it all, Dr. No’s Terrence Young. He introduced the world to Connery, “Bond, James Bond,” the iconic gun barrel sequence, Monty Norman’s fanfare, Maurice Binder’s silhouetted title sequences, “shaken, not stirred,” SPECTRE, Bond’s trademark Walther PPK, and Ursula Andress’ proto-Bond girl, along with countless other trademarks of the series. Dr. No’s a fabulously confident franchise starter that Young then topped with From Russia with Love, a Hitchcockian thriller that remains the franchise’s classiest installment. Thunderball is a lesser entry, but it was the first Bond film with a major gimmick (the underwater one). That filmmaking mentality would go on to dominate the franchise, but Young really delivered on the promise of the underwater photography. The diving action may be slow, but it’s a major practical achievement and captures an otherworldly balletic beauty that the world had never seen before. Young understood Bond. He gets to the root of Dr. No’s winning formula in his 1999 director’s commentary:

“A lot of things in this film, the sex and violence and so on, if played straight, a) would be objectionable, and b) we’re never gonna go past the censors; but the moment you take the mickey out, put the tongue out in the cheek, it seems to disarm.”

Terrence Young was the first and the best. Many have tried, but he’s yet to be beaten as the definitive James Bond director.

UK-based freelance entertainment journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, Vague Visages and The Digital Fix.