‘Roar’: Real lions turn out real dangerous for people making a grand fiasco of a film
Back in 1969, the seeds for a very dangerous obsession took hold when producer Noel Marshall and his wife, Hitchcock movie muse du jour Tippi Hedren, visited Africa and became deeply concerned about the big cat hunting trend. They wanted to do something about it, and that something was an animal sanctuary outside Los Angeles that would become the Shambala Preserve, which still exists. The number of rescues reached 150-plus big cats (mostly lions, but also pumas, tigers, leopards and so on) and became the basis for the movie “Roar,” one of the craziest spectacles ever filmed.
It took more than a decade and $17 million – three times more than “Chariots of Fire,” which won the Best Picture Oscar the year “Roar” was released in Australia – to complete the project. The film, which also stars Hedren’s then-teenage daughter, Melanie Griffith, is getting its U.S. release some 34 years later thanks to Drafthouse Films, which clearly knows the historical and cult commercial value of such a time capsule curio.
Ironically, Marshall, who made his reputation as a talent agent and later produced “The Exorcist,” would become so all-consumed – possessed, if you will – with the environmentally aimed endeavor that it would be pretty much the beginning and end of his acting, writing and directing career. He and Hedren would be divorced by 1982 and he would produce only one more film, “A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon” with River Phoenix.
The most amazing thing when you see “Roar” is just how close and unprotected the cast (pretty much Marshall, Hedren, Griffith and Marshall’s two sons, John and Jerry) get to the lions. There are scenes in which Marshall is teamed by a pack of lionesses as if he’s prey, and Griffith and her mom are chased through a jungle house by a large, blood-soaked male lion who seems intent on tasting their innards. What transpires makes Siegfried and Roy seem like child’s play, and the film – shot by skilled cinematographer Jan de Bont, who would go on to make “Speed” and “Twister” – is a wonderment in quality of composition and precise framing, especially considering the inherent danger and mercurial nature of the feline cast.
Plot wise there’s not much to “Roar.” Marshall was inspired by an abandoned farm bungalow in Africa inhabited by a pride of lions, and back in (north of) L.A., recreates that cross-pollination on a small plot of lake land crowded by trees. As the story has it, his character’s fictional family is coming for a visit, but he’s off dealing with locals and two rogue tigers who ultimately require a jeep ride. Back at the ranch, Hedren, Griffith and the boys spend their time penned in by the big cats who either want to eat or greet their new guests. It’s somewhat of a suspense thriller with a touch of “Bringing Up Baby” comedy mixed in, and while it never works as a story, every frame engrosses from a “What’s going on” and “How did they shoot this” aspect.
The real punch to “Roar” beyond its long incubation and shelf life is the amount of injuries suffered by the cast and crew. More than 70 people affiliated with the long-brewing production were scraped, nipped or mauled. de Bont was scalped by a lion and needed more than 100 stitches. John Marshall was pinned with his head inside the mouth of a lion, and it took six men and nearly an hour to free him. Hedren was thrown by an elephant and trampled by a pride of lions (the assailing avians in “The Birds” were never that real; perhaps the most dangerous encounter on the set was Hitch’s alleged unwanted advances). And Noel was bitten so severely so many times that he suffered gangrene. Griffith too, who left the project for fear of being left with “half a face,” had to get stitches for bites sustained throughout.
I honestly can’t say “Roar” is a good film or even a bad one, because it’s both. But I can say there is never a down moment; there is always something to draw you in, be it a jaw-dropping wow moment of Marshall going toe to claw with an enraged male lion or the groan-worthy silliness of such deep passion inadvertently churned into camp. It’s “Showgirls” with staying power. What’s truly amazing too is that it took so long for someone to unearth and present such a quacking gem, especially considering the environmental lean (à la “The Birds”?) and the pairing of mother and daughter screen icons at opposite ends of their careers. Everything about “Roar” says run to and away. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The madness of Noel Marshall is fierce and foolish and wholly infectious.
“Roar” is on its way to digital releasing following its limited and brief theatrical release. A previous version of this story ran April 23 when the film played in Brookline.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Film Threat and Open Windows. Tom is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow Tom on Twitter @TBMeek3 and read more at TBMeek3.wordpress.com.