Introduction: A Wild Ride

It’s a rank understatement to say that Walsh’s personality
has never been properly identified.
—Manny Farber

When Raoul Walsh was fifteen years old he awoke one night from a dream that left him shaking. He trembled as much from dread as from a half-formed sense of excitement. In a sleep that seemed as much nightmare as fantasy, he saw that his beloved mother, Elizabeth, had suddenly died. He could make no sense of it and could no longer reach out to touch her. An overwhelming sadness took over. But at the same time he had a sense of something startling: he now stood on the brink of a fabulous journey, a great adventure that offered escape from the hole he felt had just been shot through the middle of his heart.

The dread that touched young Walsh that night was no fiction. Just two days earlier, his beautiful and much beloved mother, Elizabeth Walsh, died of cancer at the age of forty-two, leaving behind a devoted husband, three children and a household she had filled with endless storytelling and fanciful flights of imagination. For Raoul Walsh the grief was almost unbearable. As he wrote in his autobiography over seventy years later, “I was quite unprepared for the sudden blow that left me motherless at fifteen…Mother passed away in the big master bedroom into which I used to steal and beg for one of her stories about an earlier America…Where before I had loved it, the place became unbearable… The terrible thing was that she was gone and I was only half a person…”

Not only did the stories cease; so did Elizabeth and Thomas Walsh’s renowned dinner parties where the Walsh children sat at the table infatuated while listening to the ramblings of a Lionel Barrymore or a John L. Sullivan in the time it took to finish one course and move on to another.

So adrift was young Walsh that he could not understand his life now or what lay in store. His only recourse lay in creating another kind of dream that encapsulated a great adventure, one that, perhaps unknown to him then, began the moment his mother died: it would last a lifetime. He jumped so quickly into fantasy that he very likely may have even imagined the adventure that lay before him. The line between what was true and what was fantasy became blurred—but either way he embarked on a wild ride:

The fantasy came quickly. Walsh’s father, Thomas, seeing how Elizabeth’s death devastated his oldest son, encouraged the boy to travel so as to escape. Thomas’ brother, Matthew, was about to set off on the high seas for Cuba, and Thomas made certain that his son was on board when Matthew’s schooner, the Enniskillen, sailed out of Peck’s Slip in New York City in one week’s time.

In this moment Raoul Walsh created the fundamental subject of his life—and of his art to come: He knew how to escape great sadness by dreaming, then creating, an adventure of his own making—one shaped by his own design. His escape was forged from a schism in his psyche that he would come to articulate in story telling, that he would come to count on. The pervasive mourning that had left a hole in his soul responded easily to the sense of imagination and fantasy that leaped up to fill it. Adventure and fantasy offered the only viable means of escape from the grief that, ironically, he never would escape. These two—grief and adventure—locked themselves together in his mind. It would be ironic that the grief he felt at the loss of his mother gave his art great range; he escaped repeatedly because he had to. Now only “half a person,” Walsh had to fill in the other half of himself, and he would do it through adventure and romance.

Forced to make friends with sadness, Walsh, unconsciously, perhaps, took that sadness with him into stories he told himself. As he got older, his great sense of storytelling served him well when, on the cusp of his twenties, he found his way into the fledgling movie industry where storytelling could fill huge movie screens. Telling stories to others, Walsh found fictional characters persistently embarking on an adventure of some kind. His film art would depict great action that, emotionally and physically, drove his characters forward—their sense of duty more often than not triggered by a sadness, a mistake, that they leave behind. As in Walsh’s early life, sadness haunts tragic outsiders Roy Earle and his girlfriend, Marie, in High Sierra; while they make plans to evade police, their actions stem from a desperate need to save their own lives. In Walsh’s first Warner Bros. outing, The Roaring Twenties, although Jimmy Cagney’s Eddie Bartlett returns home from the war with great expectations, his life spirals downward as he makes one mistake after another in trying simply to make a legitimate living. A sense of sadness also underscores White Heat’s Oedipally deranged Cody Jarrett as he unintentionally maps out his climb to chaos, ending in his fiery demise in Walsh and Cagney’s hugely iconic 1949 outing.

Even earlier than these postwar films, sadness defines the society Walsh paints in his silent films Regeneration, The Honor Systerm, and What Price Glory? just as it manipulates his soldiers and renegades’ adventures in the 1950s films and wreaks havoc in the lives of his 1950s women, especially Mamie Stover and the four women held up at a ranch in A King and Four Queens. Walsh’s sadness is more often than not driven underground in his characters’ psyches. They look to be moving forward yet a tinge of world-weariness shows on their faces, the way they move, the choices they make.

Throughout the teens and 1920s, Walsh wrote and directed at a fever pitch. He took a huge chance and traveled through five states to film the achingly difficult The Big Trail, a financial gamble that did not pay off and that instead sent him into reeling for the next decade until he rebounded when he landed at Warner Bros., the studio that oversaw his golden period of storytelling. During this time of great success, Walsh never appeared to challenge the system he worked within. If anything, he looked to be its best “yes” man, taking work when, as he liked to say, the studio dropped off a script on his front lawn the morning after he had just finished shooting the previous one. He said yes because he lived in a much deeper psychological place; he lived in his filmic adventures and kept them as a great protection. While the social world around him saw tragic events envelop other directors’ art—responses to two world wars, for one, The Great Depression for another—Walsh kept moving at lightening speed, his pictures seeming unscathed by that real world and existing instead in a dream state—the state induced by making movies. He escaped that far more dangerous world and stayed inside his own fictional intentions.

This seeming doubleness—existing in one world (looking like a “yes” man) but more authentically living in another—made Walsh a maverick in the truest sense. He directed pictures that gathered audiences and momentum: they could be humorous, ribald, gutsy. But always they were technically agile and at the same time displayed a broad understanding of American types, American landscapes. His stories hinged on a swift movement and rhythm that became his signature.

Yet the need for escape never abated. On the first page of Walsh’s autobiography, Each Man in His Time, written when he was in his mid-eighties and nearing the end of his life, sadness is the first feeling Walsh recalls and wants his reader to see. He writes about his “marvelous childhood” yet begins with an image of a man grieving. “One of my earliest memories: the sadness of Edwin Booth’s face, when he came to visit my father at our brownstone house on Forty-eighth Street in New York….‘Why does Mr. Booth look so unhappy,’ I asked my mother, adding in six-year-old wonder.’ ‘Didn’t he have a good dinner?’ Mother tactfully explained that our tragic guest’s brother, John Wilkes Booth, was the man who shot President Lincoln. She shook her head. ‘Poor Edwin!’”

Walsh talks about Edwin Booth but really refers to himself and to the characters to come that live in front of his camera—people who long to be safe and long to redeem themselves, even if the longing is only half-formed in their consciousness. Walsh’s dream held within itself the seeds of adventure, mystery and romance. Yet at its core, the dream contains a kind of grief that drives Walsh’s psychology to those imaginary places. Walsh never acknowledged, and perhaps only half knew, that the actor who eventually played John Wilkes Booth, the maverick, emotionally veiled director he became, was the true subject of his own adventures.

Grief, adventure, spiritedness—all these meshed together as Walsh traversed his long career. He was a man extremely conscious of how Hollywood viewed him, and he did all he could to help shape that view. In his early career, when movie directors were seen both as gods and odd curiosities, Walsh began giving interviews to the press. He quickly gained a reputation for being wild; reporters painted him as a handsome, restless man, often times flailing his hands in the air, jumping up and downon the set to get the performance he wanted out of his actors. He had movie star good looks and a personality that strutted. Underneath that persona, though, Walsh was a serious soul, determined to get a picture wrapped on time and on budget. He never fudged on that goal in his fifty plus years in the business.

As he grew older the press saw Walsh not so much as a wild spirit but as a humorous man who life spilled out onto the public through endless anecdotes; he told crazy stories about his antics with Errol Flynn, Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. He quipped endlessly about prostitutes he had known, cowboys and bandits he ran with; about getting drunk with the legends who visited his set, with the crew he adored more than any other bunch.

But these were stories, part of the adventure, part of the fiction he learned to wrap around himself so that he would not really be seen. “Let’s get the hell out of here!,” he often yelled out on the set when a scene wrapped. Part humorous, part serious, the quip is the essential Walsh—the man half in but at the same time half way out the door, perpetually ready to bolt, to leap and walk quickly away and to disappear into the dark corners of a soundstage where no one could find him but always knew he was there just the same.

From Marilyn Ann Moss’ biography of Raoul Walsh, The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh, by Marilyn Ann Moss,  published by The University Press of Kentucky.


For years, filmgoers around the world have wondered about the true
details of the life of the great filmmaker Raoul Walsh. Now the world
can find out.

With more than 150 films to his credit and a career spanning almost
six decades, Raoul Walsh (1887-1980) is one of the most enduring
icons of the classic Hollywood period. Known for his elaborate
action movies, large-scale outdoor pictures, and solitary heroes and
heroines on the run, the director, actor, writer and producer became
popular for his adventure films, which attracted huge audiences with
their spectacular tales of exploration and daring characters.

This documentary chronicles the career of one of American cinema’s
early mavericks, delving into his unique filmmaking style, his
colorful personal life away from the movie set, and his equally
colorful public image that he, himself, helped to create.

Raoul Walsh belonged to the early 20th century generation of
directors that included John Ford, Howard Hawks, Allan Dwan, Frank
Borzage and W.F. Murnau — a legendary class of artists who worked in
the fledgling film industry, creating imaginary worlds and elaborate
stories of perilous journeys, cunning enemies, and everlasting love.

Walsh jumped into the movie business in its infancy just after the
turn of the 20th century. He first became an actor and toured the
country before beginning work with the Pathe Bros., in Fort Lee, New
Jersey. As he had a knack for riding horses, he was quickly snapped
up by D. W. Griffith at Biography Studios. Walsh began as an actor
for Griffith, but soon learned filmmaking techniques from the master
when the Griffith players moved to Los Angeles. In 1915,
Griffith tapped Walsh to portray John Wilkes Booth in Griffith’s
masterpiece, “The Birth of a Nation.” Griffith also chose Walsh to
drive down to Juarez, Mexico to film the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.

Then William Fox lured Walsh to his new studio and Walsh moved back
to New York to work at Fox Pictures, soon ending up back in
California when Fox opened a studio on the West Coast. In 1915 Walsh
directed the first feature-length gangster film, “Regeneration,” and
now stood solidly as one of Fox’s leading directors, working with
such stars as Theda Bara, Victor McLaglen, and soon, Gloria Swanson
and Mae West.

Walsh was about to film the first outdoor talking picture, “In Old
Arizona,” in 1928, when he had a freak accident while on location and
lost his right eye. When he began wearing his famous eye patch, he
earned the suitably dashing moniker “the one-eyed bandit.”

After directing the huge 70mm production “The Big Trail,” in 1930, during
which he discovered John Wayne and put him in the picture, Walsh
continued to be one of Hollywood’s most popular directors.

In 1939 he joined Warner Bros. in Los Angeles and began what many
call his golden period, directing some of the biggest names in
Hollywood, including James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino,
Edward G. Robinson and Bette Davis. Walsh stayed at Warners for 30
years, directing such iconic films as “The Roaring Twenties,” “They
Drive by Night” and “High Sierra.” When be met and began directing
the dashing Errol Flynn, one of Warners’ biggest stars, the two men
forged a professional and personal friendship that gave both of them
some of their biggest hits, including “Objective Burma,” “They Died
With Their Boots On” and “Gentleman Jim.” Flynn gave what many
consider to be his finest performances under Walsh’s direction.

Walsh culminated his years at Warners with what is considered one of
the greatest gangster films of all time, “White Heat,” starring
long-time friend Jimmy Cagney.

Walsh also had a deep love of horses, breeding them, raising them on
his various ranches in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles,
and entering them in numerous races over the years.

As Hollywood’s golden period was coming to an end and the studio
system was breaking apart, Walsh left Warners and became a freelance
director during the 1950s and 1960s. He worked at such studios as
MGM, Universal, Paramount and Twentieth Century-Fox. During these
years he continued to turn out films that became huge hits with
moviegoers, including “Battle Cry,” “The Naked and the Dead,” “Along
the Great Divide,” “The Tall Men” and “The Revolt of Mamie
Stover.” He continued to be in demand as a director and worked with
some of Hollywood’s most famous actors and actresses, including Clark
Gable, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper, Jane
Russell and Virginia Mayo.

Walsh’s films still brought in big boxoffice figures. He continued
directing action adventure stories, Westerns, romantic comedies, sea
adventures and romances. Even as Hollywood was being challenged by
the television industry, Walsh remained a popular and sought after director.

In 1964, when Walsh retired to his ranch in Simi Valley, California
and continued to raise his beloved horses, he remained a sought after
Hollywood figure. His work was the subject of innumerable
retrospectives both in the United States and in Europe. Accepting
many invitations to appear before new audiences, he became revered in
France and in Japan. When he published his autobiography in 1974 it
became a best read in tinseltown.

Director Biography

Marilyn Ann Moss grew up in Los Angeles and is a former film and television critic for The Hollywood Reporter and Boxoffice Magazine. She is also the author of two well-received director biographies, “Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director” (2011), and, previously, “Giant: George Stevens, A Life on Film” (2004). She is a film historian and educator who has co-curated a retrospective of Raoul Walsh’s films at The American Cinematheque in Hollywood in 2011, and who also has spoken at film retrospectives at UCLA, Turner Classic Movies Film Festival and at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh” is her directorial debut.

Cast and Crew

Directed by Marilyn Ann Moss
Written and Produced by Marilyn Ann Moss
Based on Marilyn Ann Moss’s book, Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director
Raoul Walsh voiced by Johnny Crear
Editor: Patrick Francis
Executive Producers: Paul Lynch, Hank Kilgore, Sue Kilgore
Producer: Harley W. Lond
Camera: John Gulager, Jim Makichuk, Ira Gallen, Harley Lond, Patrick Francis
Additional Editing: John Hanrahan, Cody Miller
Additional footage directed by Joel Bender
Original Music: Imre Czomba
Post-Production Supervisor: Harley W. Lond
Re-recording mixer/Post Production Sound: Shawn Duffy/Dufftone Sound
Colorist: Peter Swartz/Color Space Finishing
Art Director: Erica Peek
Sound and Dialogue Editor: David J. Williams
Post Sound Mixer: David J. Williams/Melrose Sound Recorders
Wrap-Around Cinematography: Ricardo Jacques Gale
Legal Services: Michael Donaldson, Dean R. Cheley

Peter Bogdanovich
Illeana Douglas
Richard Erdman
Sidney J. Furie
John Gallagher
Tab Hunter
C. Courtney Joyner
Norman Klein
Jack Larson
Paul Lynch
Leonard Maltin
Lee Marvin
Alan K. Rode
Jane Russell
Anthony Slide

Documentary, 95 minutes, B&W/Color

Raoul Walsh: Biography

Raoul Walsh’s life and times are as compelling as the movies he made, from his youth in New York City – where his parents regularly entertained dinner guests Edwin Booth (brother of John Wilkes Booth), Buffalo Bill, Frederick ReminEalsh, Rusell, Gablegton and Teddy Roosevelt – to his apprenticeship as an assistant director to D.W. Griffith, where, for instance, Walsh himself convinced the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa that his life (and the execution of his enemies) should be made into a movie. Walsh was an imposing figure in Hollywood, contributing movies that were as energetic as his own lifestyle. He loved to recount how he stood up to mobster Bugsy Siegel’s attempt to bribe him, how he was a committed drinking buddy of Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn, and an upstanding figure in the Hollywood Irish mafia that included Jimmy Cagney and Pat O’Brien and a host of Irish directors and actors.

The details of Walsh’s amazing life shape up into a fascinating story that he himself would have liked to direct.

Adventurous and iconoclastic, Walsh gave Hollywood some of its greatest action-adventure yarns. His life and movies are the stuff that dreams are made of, with a career spanning over half a century, from the era of one- and two-reel silents to the tumultuous 1960s, from such classic gangster films as White Heat and The Roaring Twenties, action-adventures as They Died With Their Boots On and Objective Burma!, to Westerns, romances and Civil War epics.

WalshWalsh helped to transform the Hollywood studio yarn into a breathless art form. He belongs to that generation of filmmakers who learned to make movies on a dime in a fledgling industry at the start of the 20th century and invented a Hollywood that made movies bigger than life itself.

Off the screen, Walsh also knew an adventure or two. Friend to Pancho Villa and Wyatt Earp, Jack London and William Randolph Hearst, Walsh traveled the South Seas and Mexico as a young man, and then became an actor and ace cameraman for D.W. Griffith before he became a master film director.

Walsh directed the first American gangster epic, Regeneration, in 1915 and in 1930 changed Marion Morrison’s name to John Wayne and put him in his first Western, The Big Trail. Walsh directed Gloria Swanson in the classic silent Sadie Thompson and out grossed Cecil B. DeMille’s epic Carmen by putting Theda Bara in his own spectacular version. He gave Hollywood its first silent mega-hits before he put the light and magic into Douglas Fairbanks’ swashbuckling 1924 The Thief of Bagdad.They Drive by Night

Walsh moved easily from silents to talkies. Working at Warner Bros. beginning in 1939, he made history. He pitted Cagney against Bogart in the classic The Roaring Twenties before he took Bogey up the California mountains in High Sierra and sent Cagney to the “top of the world” in the gangster classic White Heat.

One of Hollywood’s great “tough guy” directors alongside John Ford, Howard Hawks and John Huston, Walsh’s one hundred and forty films created a classic cinema of adventure, romance and American hard knocks both vigorous and tenderhearted. His films moved to the rhythm of bullets and came at audiences with style and energy.

The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh is based on Marilyn Ann Moss’s biography of Walsh, Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director, and has the approval of the Raoul Walsh Estate.