Roar is a truly unique piece of cinema, possibly the most dangerous and brave and crazy film ever made. This week I take a look at this fascinating production which took 11 years to make, cost over $15 million and put most of its cast and crew in the hospital. The result is a magical, terrifying, hilarious story of the power of nature, the dangers inherent in our relationship with it and of good intentions gone badly wrong.
Roar is an absolute one of a kind movie, labelled ‘the most dangerous film ever made’ when it was first released. It tells the story of Hank, played by writer/director Noel Marshall. He is a naturalist who lives in small wildlife reserve in East Africa with 2 elephants and over 100 lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, cougars, and jaguars. Hank studies the animals up close, living with them in his house and interacting with them constantly.
One day his family comes to visit, but Hank (who is a bit of a disorganised hippy) is late leaving to pick them up from the airport. So, while he’s making his way to the airport they get tired of waiting and catch a bus, which drops them off near his house. They arrive and find Hank isn’t there, but the animals are. This kicks off an hour of organised chaos as they struggle to control the beasts and maintain their safety. By the time Hank makes it back from the airport his family have been harassed, terrorised and injured by the creatures, though everything is alright in the end.
Roar is an example of exploitation cinema, a genre or sub-genre of cinema that is loosely defined but generally covers film that exploit unusual trends or niche interests and often contain lurid content or otherwise content that would normally be censored. They are always low-budget productions aimed at smaller audiences with peculiar tastes. They often did not pass the MPAA and other institutional requirement for official release and were distributed by unofficial underground methods. Many have become cult classics, like Easy Rider and Shaft and within exploitation cinema there are a series of micro-genres including:
– Blaxploitation – films usually made by and starring all-black casts and crews and telling stories that align with African-American sympathies much more closely than big Hollywood flicks. These were particularly popular in the 60s and early 70s during the political struggles for black rights. Shaft is the most famous example, and I can recommend the recent homage Black Dynamite, which is extremely funny.
– Carsploitation – movies where vehicles feature more prominently than the people driving them, like Vanishing Point and Mad Max. Tarantino’s Death Proof is another tribute to this micro-genre, though my favourite example has to be 1974’s The Cars that Ate Paris.
– Mockbusters – a more recent development in the exploitation genre sometimes called ‘remakesploitation’ movies, these films are cheap remakes of blockbusters seeking to cash in on that section of the audience who just wants ‘another film like…’. It used to be that these would follow on from major releases, often put together and released within a year to try to capitalise on the lingering interest. These days the studio The Asylum specialise in doing this side-by-side with the major films, releasing their products in the same week or month as the big Hollywood productions, for example in 2009 we got The Terminators, released a couple of weeks before Terminator: Salvation. I am quite a fan of The Asylum – despite the acting, writing and visual effects being cheap and low quality (sometimes very low quality) they do show some imagination, occasionally making more entertaining films than the big productions they are ripping off.
What is unusual about Roar is that this wasn’t some low-budget rush-job movie that sought to capitalise on a short-term trend. What is unique about the movie is that they used large numbers of real, live animals on location to maximise on realism. The problem is that lions, tigers, cheetahs and so on are very dangerous and not at all easy to train and control, resulting in over 70 of the cast and crew being hospitalised, sometimes with serious injuries. The cinematographer Jan De Bont was scalped by a lion, requiring dozens (and possibly hundreds) of stitches to put the back of his head back together. The young star Melanie Griffith – the daughter of Tippi Hedren, the wife of Noel Marshall – was also mauled by a big cat and for a time it was feared she would lose an eye. In some scenes in the movie her face is obviously being obscured by her hair or via camera angles to cover up the injuries. Marshall himself was also badly chewed by a lion and ended up with gangrene, while Tippi Hedren fractured her leg in a disagreement with Timbo, the elephant.
The poster for the film’s original release in 1981 says ‘No animals were harmed in the making of this film. 70 cast and crew members were.’ The film’s opening credits say ‘Since the choice was made to use untrained animals and since for the most part they chose to do as they wished, it’s only fair they share the writing and directing credits’. When you watch the film – which I thoroughly recommend all of you do – you’ll see that they are not kidding. The animals do just run about doing whatever they like, even attacking the cast on camera and a lot of the blood that you see is real blood.
In total the film took 11 years to make and cost around 17 million dollars – money that they never made back because the movie was never released in the US, at least not until last year. The film was conceived by Marshall and Hedren in the late 60s, according to an Entertainment Weekly article:
‘In 1969, the couple traveled to Zimbabwe, where Hedren was shooting the thriller Satan’s Harvest. At one point, the pair visited a game preserve in Mozambique and saw an old building which a pride of lions had made its home. They came up with an idea for a film about a scientist living in harmony with big cats, his attempts to protect them from hunters, and the hijinks which ensue when his family arrives at his lion-filled house when he’s away.’
In 1971 they started raising lion cubs at their home in Los Angeles alongside their three children, who play their children in the resulting movie. Their neighbours were not impressed and made complaints, resulting in a city official telling Marshall he had to remove the big cats from the residential neighbourhood in Sherman Oaks. So Marshall bought another property in Santa Clarita and moved the lions there along with numerous other animals that would go on to star in Roar.
I know, this sounds completely bonkers but it is true – the proof is in the pudding. Watching the film you can see this was the result of a truly eccentric couple embarking on a completely crazy scheme that resulted in over 70 visits to the hospital and produced a one-of-a-kind movie that until recently was hardly ever seen by anyone. This was Marshall’s debut as a director and, perhaps unsurprisingly, was also his last film as a director. Years later his son John, who also stars in the film, said, ‘In hindsight, I know how stupid it was to do this film. I am amazed no one died.’
So am I. The production was also beset by natural disasters including wildfires and a flood that caused millions in damage that had to be repaired before shooting could continue. In truth, it is amazing that they didn’t just give up and thus it’s amazing that the film was ever finished. But I am very glad it was because it’s quite magical – incredibly scary at times, extremely funny at others. Anyone who has had cats as pets will recognise in the big cats the exact same behaviours as in the small cats – the same expressions, the same attempts to climb on places that aren’t really big enough, the constant knocking things over and chasing stuff about, the same chewing on any bit of string or rope they can find. It’s a really fun movie to watch, truly unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
To try to give you a better sense of just what they went through in making this movie here is a clip from the making of documentary from the DVD.
This is all very funny, but there was a serious side to this too. Marshall and Hedren were Hollywood hippies, concerned about wildlife. In an Telegraph interview Hedren said, ‘During those years, environmentalists all over the world were telling people that if we didn’t do something to stop this insanity of poaching, by the year 2000 the hunters would have killed all of the wild animals. It was becoming a huge issue, and we decided to do a movie about it.’ In the mid 80s, once Hedren and Marshall had divorced, Hedren wrote a book where she said she hoped the film would ‘show the possibilities of human-big cat relationships’.
So this is also a story of good intentions gone wrong. Not catastrophically – pun intended – because no one died. But the film does not really demonstrate a peaceful co-existence between humans and wildlife. If anything, it shows that any such co-existence is fraught with danger and violence and blood. Nonetheless the message does come across towards the end of the movie, and I’m going to spoil some of the plot here so if you don’t want to know what happens then stop listening to this until you’ve gone to watch Roar for yourself.
Early on, while Hank is hanging out in his house with the animals, some poachers turn up and have an argument with him, telling him he is crazy and that the animals are dangerous and need to be killed. A tiger then attacks the poachers’ boat, mauling several of them and causing some proper big cat chaos. Later on, while Hank is on his way back from the airport, the poachers return with the plan of shooting some of the animals as a warning to Hank. They kill several big cats before the leader of the pride – a massive great big lion called Togar – pounces on them and kills them. This is extremely satisfying, one of the highlights of the story along with the sequence where one of Hank’s sons is hiding in a barrel of water and the lions start lapping at the surface. However, my favourite moment has to be the scene where a lion learns to skateboard, and no I am not kidding. That really happens and it is just as good as it sounds.
But aside from this being an exceptionally unusual film with a remarkable production history there are some serious reasons why I chose to do a podcast about Roar, it isn’t just that I love the film (though that’s the main reason). I do think there are some lessons here, in amongst the insanity.
1) We do not respect nature as much as we should, either in terms of our exploitation of natural resources to produce things that we want, or in terms of the dangers the natural world poses to us. While the makers of this film set out to portray a hippy-dippy romanticised ideal of humanity’s relationship with nature what they actually ended up showing is just how arrogant we are in our relationship with nature. This is perhaps the more important lesson, because it threatens our own existence, not just that of other species.
2) CGI, among other things, make it extremely unlikely that anyone will ever make a film like this again. Why bother with real lions that are really dangerous when you can just do it all with a guy dressed in a bright green lion costume? The recent Planet of the Apes films were praised for their use of innovative motion capture and CGI technologies but ultimately that took us further away from reality and as a result these are films about our relationship with technology, not with nature.
3) Very few monster movies have ever been able to capture the same emotions, in particular the very real sense of peril, that Roar captured. In essence, all monster movies try to do what Roar does – they give us a safe glimpse of danger. But because we know what we’re watching is unreal, either a guy in a rubber Godzilla suit or a CGI T-Rex, we never feel that anyone is actually in danger. As such it is pure spectacle where nothing is at stake. This sort of entertainment not only alienates us from nature and from reality but from our own, real, natural emotions.
4) This was not only the most dangerous movie ever filmed, but one of the bravest. Whatever criticisms we might make of our disrespect for nature, our arrogance, the sheer foolhardy and self-destructive aspects of the human character, we’re also a brave and imaginative species and that is worth respecting and worth celebrating.
5) Lions are really, really cool. As great as the people who made this film are, the lions and other animals are the real stars of Roar and their acting performances are better than those of many humans in recent movies, even those that have won Oscars.