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Eric’s Review: Roar (1981)


★★★★★ out of ★★★★★

For everybody who has been enjoying Tiger King, you’ve seen NOTHING. Roar follows a roughly biographical take of a famous family who did the most insane experiment ever: living with 150 big wild lions, tigers, and other big cats. The tagline says it all: “No animals were injured in the process of making this movie, but 70 cast and crew members were.” It’s the most dangerous movie ever made.

Directed by Noel Marshall

OH MY GOD! That was something else! That was my reaction ten minutes into this movie. It is jaw-dropping incredulous.

In 1971, one of the craziest movies ever filmed was being shot in Acton, California by a maverick producer/director and his family and a courageous (and foolhardy) crew. There were no stunt doubles, no special effects, real big cats, and real idiotic human interactions with said cats. Roar is a cringe-inducing and heart-stopping film, described by many as THE MOST DANGEROUS MOVIE EVER MADE. It is astonishing that nobody died, but many came close. Noel Marshal, producer of The Exorcist, and his wife, the famed Tippi Hedren (The Birds), along with their children John, Jerry, and Melanie Griffith (Working Girl, Body Double) all participated in a melodramatic movie starring them, and an enormous pride of 150 big cats that the family had been raising.

Marshall and Hedren had been on safari, and they saw a game warden’s house that had been taken over by a pride of lions. For some not-so-sound reasons, they decided that they wanted a house full of big wild felines. They would find, rescue these big cats from being illegally kept pets or abusive zoos, and raise these cubs to adulthood with the intent of filming a movie with them. Lost in the irony of their good intent was they had no real expertise or training in raising these animals. They had no idea what they were doing. In the meanwhile, their family lived with these big animals like a massive family. Some of the photos attached here describe the “home life” of these animals outside of the movie.

It was probably the most unbelievably crazy, insane, film ever made, and it was shocking beyond belief that no one died.

John Marshall, star of Roar and son of director Noel Marshall

This would-be Born Free celebrates the beauty and power of lions, tigers, panthers, leopards, and cougars, but in a way that is totally irresponsible and dangerous. The scenes are stiffly staged, and despite Hedren’s skill as an actress, the whole family comes off really wooden. Perhaps it is because the cast was required to interact with 150 semi-trained big cats

The plot is roughly this: Noel has shepherded a large group of cats at his ranch in Africa, and is awaiting the arrival of his family who are going to the ranch for the first time. For a poorly described reason, he has to leave the ranch, and the family arrives in his absence completely unprepared for all the big cats. Madcap chasing and antics ensue as Tippi and the kids scramble from room to room with lions and tigers in pursuit.

Really, what it feels like Marshall was thinking is: we’ve got 150 big cats. Let’s make a movie with them! And some of the footage is truly stunning, but let’s be honest, this is like NASCAR. You’re here to see the car crashes. Or, in this case, lions beat up the cast, plot be damned.

This clearly was thought to be something of a Wonderful World of Disney adventure, but there were no safety rails. The movie was filled with action affection. The point is that all of these people are interacting directly with all of these magnificent animals. It is clear that they love the animals, and the beautiful animals… at times… are affectionate in return.

What could possibly go WRONG?

Animals can be trained, but they can’t be tamed. But Noel thought he could be tame. And he had all the bite marks to prove that I was right!

Tim Cooney, elephant trainer and boom operator, Roar

Everyone who knows cats, they are not entirely reliable even if they do love you. Cats can be fickle and when you get cats this big, they will do what they want, and sometimes they want to treat you like a rag doll. They are curious things, and will occasionally take a swipe at you or bite you, just because they are in a mood. There was a toll in blood to be paid, not all of it shown on the screen. But I dare you not to keep your brain in check for the first fifteen minutes of footage. It is not gory, but it INTENSE.

“Oh God, look what the cat dragged in!”

Tippi Hedren upon the lions dragging a carcass of a zebra into the house.

The Butcher’s Bill:

  • Cinematographer Jan De Bont, who would go on to direct Speed, Twister, and The Haunting, got scalped and required 200 stitches to sew his scalp back to his skull. And he came back!
  • Melanie Griffith got mauled and had to have facial reconstructive surgery to repair the damage. She must have had a fine plastic surgeon, given that she would have a prolific Hollywood career in front of her, and had a reputation as a beauty like her mother. You can see the beginning of the mauling toward the end of the movie.
  • In the scene with the elephant grabbing Tippi Hedren and lifting her up, you can see her ankle break. It went gangrene. In order to finish the scene the reversed the footage.
  • Noel Marshall suffered multiple bite wounds, and you can see a brutal hand injury in the scene where he breaks up the fight, the lion bit his hand all the way through (it’s a four-inch hole in his hand). The whole arm would get infected as a result. He also got bit on the leg and got dragged down a staircase. That too got gangrenous.
  • Doran Kauper, the assistant director got bitten through the head, with a puncturing his neck and his cheek, and got his ear pulled off.
  • Once a week someone was sent to the hospital. Tippi believes that seventy is a low estimate.

This was a non-union job so there were no safety protocols on the set. Most of the crew was inexperienced and in desperation to get a break in Hollywood. Many of them quit. The cast was the family, so there was no quitting allowed. There was no real way to actually get a real script or story since so much of the film was dependent on acting with lots of wild animals, who were, shall we say, unreliable.

The description that no animal was harmed during the production was a lie. There was a freak flash flood that took out the set and released a number of the lions who escaped into the valley, all of this while Noel Marshall was supposed to have surgery for his leg bite injury. As a result the sheriff’s department shot and killed three of the lions, including the star lion, Robbie. I guess technically it’s outside the scope of filming, but still, it was a tragic turn, and it put an eight-year hiatus on the filming. The film wouldn’t be released until ten years from its inception in 1981.

The movie was a disaster at the box office, it never really could find a niche. It really isn’t much of a movie. Only Germany would release it, and it never got a theatrical release in the USA. The film is an utter display of hubris, albeit with a great deal of love for the animals, but Marshall badly underestimated the popular draw his film would have. It is, however an unforgettable spectacle. Roar essentially ended Tippi Hedren’s career, and it also forced a divorce between Marshall and Hedren, but there is thankfully a pretty happy ending to all of this. After the movie completed, she has devoted her life to protecting and providing a home for all the animals in a preserve called Shambala, where she continues to take in abused and illegally imported animals.

This is a PG-rated movie, but I would really hesitate to show this to children. It is now available for the first time in the USA, and right now only on iTunes. If you are into Tiger King, make this your next stop.

There is also a fantastic documentary about Roar that was produced by Animal Planet, Roar The Most Dangerous Movie Ever Made and it is available on Amazon, and it includes interviews with Jerry and John Marshall, as well as a number of the other crew of the project. It’s an amazing story.

Review By Eric Li

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