Dir: Noel Marshall
Filmways/Drafthouse, US, 1981
Starring: Noel Marshall, Tippi Hedren, Melanie Griffith
Man armed with monumental stupidity drags his entire family into battle with jungle cats, because that’s obviously a good plan.
Hindsight can transform a movie from a box-office bomb to a misunderstood masterpiece; what may seem like a terrible idea at first can often be re-evaluated as a movie wildly ahead its time. However, the exact opposite can be said for Noel Marshall’s horrifying Roar (1981), which was stunningly behind its time in the sense that it wields a level of common sense almost on par with a caveman. Conceived just as mainstream American cinema started to become more bold and experimental, and finished just as it had eased into high concept blockbusting, the movie and its lengthy production scandal came and went as an untenable sale in a market that could in no way accommodate it (plus, it was advertised as a family movie, which is magnificently inaccurate). Now, with a thirty-year remove, its increasingly legendary back-story has only further separated it from its initial context, and Roar has been transformed from a terrible idea to something that can only be described as utterly confounding.
Marshall’s sole directorial effort was a passion project that took over a decade to shoot, forced a family into financial ruin, saw frequent interventions by animal rights activists, and nearly killed everyone involved. Catastrophic beyond belief, the production of this career obliterating freakout is similar to that of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), albeit far worse due to the sheer insanity of its premise: a family is terrorised by dozens of wild predators, most of which were vicious and untamed lions. The results are hardly surprising: Tippi Hedren, one of the lucky ones, suffered only a fractured leg; her husband, Noel Marshall, was admitted into hospital with gangrene; their daughter, Melanie Griffith, required facial reconstructive surgery; and perhaps most gruesomely, director of photography Jan de Bont needed two-hundred stitches after a lion scalped him.
Those are just four of the seventy-plus recorded instances of injuries endured by the consummate morons on the set of this mind-melting disaster of a film, but even after all the effort, Roar wound up grossing just $2m from its $17m budget. The financial and emotional strain pushed Hedren and Marshall to divorce a year later. Marshall never directed again. But at least the animals were fine.
Even after Drafthouse re-released this batshit nonsense in the States earlier this year, barely anyone rushed to shower it with genuine praise. Indeed, it’s difficult to reconcile with anything that involves making a film alongside an entire ranch of untamed jungle beasts, which includes lions, tigers, leopards, pumas, and one very angry African elephant. After years of being constantly hunted and mauled by these creatures, as well as experiencing countless walk-outs by actively sensible crew members, the destruction of sets through the mercy of natural disasters (clearly God also thought the film was a bad move), and financiers running as far away from the project as possible, it’s baffling to comprehend how the film was ever even finished, let alone how anyone managed to survive such an ordeal. However, it’s considerably less surprising that the finished product plays with a total lack of focus or emotional involvement; that is to say, in the rare moments where nobody is in deep mortal peril, Roar is a sloppily edited, poorly acted, and often incoherent piece of work devoid of any identifiable characters.
But that doesn’t mean that you don’t fear for the characters’ safety. In the opening credits, the audience is reminded that, throughout the shoot, most of the animals did exactly what they wanted. That means neither the cast nor crew had any control over the majority of situations, so when one of the actors is trapped inside a small bedroom surrounded by at least twelve prowling lions, chances are that the facial expressions you’re seeing are ones of genuine terror. What it lacks as a fictional narrative, Roar makes up for in such documentary elements, which make it a hysterically gripping experience, as well as presenting a strong case for animal conservation, and for the protection of endangered species. At the end, the animals turn out to be more complex than just a kill drive (which isn’t a spoiler, seeing as that’s pretty much true to life anyway), but even at their most ferocious, to watch these big cats is to bear witness to real, magnificent beauty, something that is infinitely more precious than a fur coat, or a crocodile handbag, or a selfie with a murdered lion. Evidently, this is a message that Marshall and Hedren deemed important enough to jeopardise their own lives for, as well as the lives of their children.
As previously mentioned, Roar was barely seen upon its release, and it was somehow forgotten to the point in which it caused a renewed stir of bewilderment across the independent circuit upon its rediscovery. But unlike ill-received films such as Freaks (1932) or Peeping Tom (1960) that were simply cultural missteps at the time of their release, Roar didn’t just seem like a terrible idea – it was a terrible idea. In fact, it’s possibly one of the worst ideas that has ever been committed to celluloid. When the production of Apocalypse Now (1979) was delayed almost indefinitely by fires and floods, it became a feat of stunning perseverance that the project not only managed to be finished, but to eventually be lauded as an all-time classic. But when the same things happened with Roar, the filmmakers should have taken those things as a sign. Then again, if the cast and crew failed to be deterred by the fact that the animals they were filming alongside were wild, predatory and extremely fucking dangerous, then I’m not quite sure what could have possibly stopped them.
In a way, though, it’s tempting to gratify Roar as something we should be thankful for. Noel Marshall and his family gave up eleven years of their lives, sold most of their possessions and went flat broke so that nobody would ever have to make anything like this ever again. It’s resolutely stranger than fiction, an invented narrative speckled with real fear, and a movie that is genuinely gobsmacking to watch. Certain films are thrilling for containing practical stunt work that appears feasibly dangerous, while others are terrifying because of their gut-punching sense of realism (Threads , for instance, is so raw in its presentation of a nuclear winter that it haunts the senses indefinitely); but Roar is gripping because you’re watching actual people facing actual death. Nothing else will turbo-charge your heart rate quite like it.
As a production, it was way beyond irresponsible, and the finished movie is inherently fascinating because, by rights, it shouldn’t even exist. And also because it is a fairly equal mixture of unthinkable daring and unwavering stupidity. There is no real lesson to be learned from its mistakes, however, because most people will already be aware that filming alongside untamed lions is a good idea only for those with a death wish. Nevertheless, Roar is somehow a thing that we share a planet with, and it remains essential viewing because – thankfully – there is nothing else like it.
- L. G. Ball