A Call to Action: The Films of Raoul Walsh

The original he-man director.

The Pacific Film Archive is in the midst of a retrospective tribute to an influential Hollywood director whose name deserves to be a household word, but isn’t: Raoul Walsh (1887-1980). “A Call to Action: The Films of Raoul Walsh,” a collaboration between BAM/PFA and the San Francisco Film Society, seeks to remedy that situation by screening fourteen films from Walsh’s prodigious career, which he began as an actor (he portrayed John Wilkes Booth in D.W. Griffith’s notorious The Birth of a Nation) and continued as director of some 140 feature films, the majority of them westerns, actioners, and rough-house comedies.

This week, New York Times critic and film historian Dave Kehr visits the PFA to talk about Walsh. Here’s what Kehr had to say about the director, via email: “Raoul Walsh is one of the three great masters of American film — the others being John Ford and Allan Dwan — whose careers covered the entire range of the classical cinema, from the one-reel narratives of the nickelodeons to the color and widescreen films of the Fifties and Sixties. His style, based on deep-focus compositions and carefully matched cuts along clear lines of action, practically defines the art of making things move in the movies, and his love of adventure — fed by the kind of first-hand experience you don’t get in film school — carries both an infectious joy and a sober knowledge of the consequences of excess.”

On Thursday, August 1 at 7 p.m., Kehr and San Francisco critic Michael Fox will talk on stage at the PFA about Walsh and his work, followed by a showing of Wild Girl (1932). Kehr elaborates: “Wild Girl had fallen from distribution until two years ago, when I was able to persuade the Museum of Modern Art to make a print from materials in their archive to be shown at a Walsh series I helped to organize at the festival ‘Il Cinema Ritrovato’ in Bologna, Italy. The film is both an action-packed western and, based as it is on a popular stage melodrama of the early 20th century, an affectionate tribute to the kind of theater that Walsh, whose parents were stage people, would have known as a child.”

On Saturday, August 3, Kehr returns to introduce a pair of typically outdoorsy Walsh yarns — 1953’s The Lawless Breed, starring Rock Hudson as outlaw John Wesley Hardin, and Pursued, a 1947 “noir western” with Robert Mitchum. Starting at 6 p.m., Kehr will sign copies of his book When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade, with the films to follow. 

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