In Focus is our chance to look a little closer at some of our favorite films. This time, we’ll be exploring the rising cult classic and our June film of the month, Roar (1981). You can learn even more about Roar if you tune in to Animal Planet on Saturday, June 24th at 10/9c pm for the premiere of the documentary ROAR: The Most Dangerous Film Ever Made.
Originally released in 1981 to financial failure, Roar has been recently reappraised as a midnight movie favorite and cult classic. While it’s easy to chalk its current cult status up to the sheer nailbitingness and insanity of unrestrained wild cats running around wreaking havoc, we think that there is much more to the spirit of the film than that. More than pure shock appeal is the film’s testament to the grit and tenacity of the independent artist. Roar was a passion project in the truest sense of the phrase, and Tippi Hedren and Noel Marshall navigated unimaginable obstacles to see it completed.
The idea for Roar came to married couple Hedren and Marshall when they were on an African wildlife preserve and saw an abandoned house that had been taken over by lions. This image coupled with their dedication to end the poaching of wild cats led to their film about a family dodging the wild animals that have overrun their property. One of the film’s first obstacles was getting a professional animal trainer on board — they all told the couple that the idea was too dangerous and would never work. They soon realized that the only way the could combat the big cats’ territorial and aggressive natures would be to raise them all together under one roof, so they adopted several lions and lived alongside them in in their home for the next half-decade. By the time filming started, they had accumulated a genuine wildlife preserve of over 100 animals including lions, tigers, elephants, and cheetahs.
Because the wild animals were only well acquainted with the family (Marshall and his three sons along with Hedren and her daughter, Melanie Griffith), they cast themselves and began shooting the film, a process that would take five years and test the limits of everyone involved. The film’s revival tagline infamously states, “No animals were harmed in the making of this film. 70 members of the cast and crew were.” Thankfully, nobody lost their life working on the film, but the most severe injuries included cinematographer Jan de Bont being scalped, Melanie Griffith needing facial reconstructive surgery, Tippi Hedren fracturing a leg (while filming a scene with an elephant, not a lion), and Noel Marshall being hospitalized with gangrene. These are problems that were piled on top of severe financing troubles, a devastating flood, an out-of-control bushfire, and the usual production woes. In the end, they completed their film, which had by then earned its reputation as being the most troubled film production of all time.
Whether you see it as a fun family romp, suspenseful thriller, testament to the power of wild animals, or a hilarious cautionary tale of filmmaking, one thing is for sure: Roar is a one-of-a-kind immersive cinematic experience that is hard to look away from.
“It’s just like life — you get the funny with the tragic.”
Melanie Griffith, about the making of the film: “Lions are a really tough act to play with. Not because they are dangerous, but because they are so funny. They upstage you every time. If you are in a shot with a lion you just know everyone is looking at the cat instead of you.”
“The cats get a little excited, tha–” *interrupted by muffled sounds of lion mauling*
Tippi Hedren, about the film: “This was probably one of the most dangerous films that Hollywood has ever seen. It’s amazing no one was killed.”
“Do you know what your friends are probably doing to your family right now? They are eating them.”
Noel Marshall wrote, produced, directed and stars as Hank. Roar was the only film that Marshall ever appeared in, but at the time he was already quite successful, having served as the Executive Producer of The Exorcist (1973). Many people have even blamed the production woes on the famous Exorcist curse. He married Tippi Hedren, and their real-life family became the cast (and occasionally the impromptu crew) of Roar. During the production, he was treated for gangrene that resulted from big cat attacks. According to his son John Marshall, Noel was the most comfortable person around the lions, and that is clearly reflected in their scenes together.
Tippi Hedren stars as Madelaine. She was no stranger herself to wild animals on set, as her first major role was in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, in which she was subjected to traumatizing bird attacks. Under personal contract with Hitchcock, she also shot Marnie before marrying her then-agent, Noel Marshall, and making Roar with him. During filming, she was bucked from an elephant and fractured her leg. She also needed 38 stitches after a lion bit her in the neck (this moment remains captured in the film). Her work on the film fundamentally changed the course of her life, as she took on numerous environmental and animal rights causes. To this day, she handles The Roar Foundation, a wildlife preserve outside of Los Angeles, and lobbies on behalf of wildlife protection.
Melanie Griffith stars as Melanie. The daughter of Tippi Hedren, Melanie Griffith grew up alongside the tigers and the lions in Roar. She had been acting seriously from the age of 14, but she reportedly wanted to drop out of the film before shooting began, fearing it was too dangerous. When the role was given to Patricia Nedd, she changed her mind and returned to the film. She did get injured during the filming, in a lion mauling that required fifty stitches and facial reconstructive surgery, and almost led to the loss of an eye. Now, she’s perhaps best known for her roles in Working Girl (1988), Something Wild (1986), and Body Double (1984).
Over 100 untrained animals also appear in the film and were credited as writers and directors. In the words of the film’s opening credits sequence, “Since for the most part they chose to do as they wished, it’s only fair they share the writing and directing credits.”
Cinematographer Jan de Bont (Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October) photographed the film. His on-set injuries might have been the most severe, requiring over 120 stitches to reattach his scalp after a lion bit his head.
DID YOU KNOW?
The actors and some crew members were unprotected and the danger was very much real, but many members of the film crew were protected by cages during filming.
To make the film, Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren needed to mortgage their ranch, Beverly Hills home, and 120-acre San Fernando estate.
Noel Marshall was diagnosed with gangrene from an injury sustained while he tried to protect the cheetahs during a bushfire. No animals were lost during the fire.
Robbie, the starring lion, was a rare black-maned Rhodesian lion. Unfortunately, he died during the flood that hit in 1978 after a dam break.
The big cats used for the film were adopted from overcrowded zoos, illegal pet shops, circuses, and animal control centers.
If Roar had been unionized, the number of wild animals would have required 260 animal trainers on set.
WHAT DID THE CRITICS SAY?
“Not that the script matters much. There barely was one, given that every scene depended on the animals’ whims. Roar is a thrilling bore, an inanity with actual peril in every scene. The story is simply “Big cats destroy a house,” since that could be guaranteed.” — Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly
“I encourage curious viewers to mentally twiddle their thumbs while they watch ‘Roar’ instead of skipping Marshall’s folly entirely because ‘Roar’ is worth seeing once.” — Simon Abrams, RogerEbert.com
“Given the enormous difficulties during production – a devastating flood, several fires, an epidemic that decimated the feline cast and numerous injuries to actors and crew, it’s a miracle that the pic was completed. Here is a passionate plea for the preservation of African wildlife meshed with an adventure-horror tale which aims to be a kind of Jaws of the jungle.” — Variety
“If Marshall and Hedren intended this as a way to better understand animals and thus be less afraid of them, then they completely missed the mark. Whether you find that hilarious or just plain sad is up to you, but there almost certainly will never be anything like ‘Roar’ again, and that’s reason enough to check it out.” — Erik McClanahan, IndieWire
“While Roar is violent, it is not anti-big cat. There are numerous sequences of these marvellous creatures being peaceful and playful. You want to watch a lion teach himself how to ride a skateboard? This is the movie for you.” — Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian
“Yet what makes Roar awful also makes it fascinating. (Seekers of the strange should ignore the star rating and run as if chased by leopards to any theater playing it.)…However misguided, it’s clearly one from the heart, a movie that should never have happened, and one that’s hard to believe actually exists. Roar is one of a kind. With any luck, it always will be.” — Keith Phipps, The Dissolve
You can take Roar home on DVD, Blu-ray, and iTunes.
In Focus Archive:
The Devil and Miss Jones
Knock on Wood
Who’s Minding the Store?
Knock on Wood
June 16, 2017