As far as hooks go, Roar‘s got a pretty good one: Noel Marshall, a film producer, agent, husband to Tippi Hedren and notably not an animal trainer, blew a fortune trying to direct his first (and ultimately only) film, mostly starring a few hundred untrained lions, tigers, pumas, panthers, jaguars and cheetahs on his own private animal reserve. Helping him in this quest were a rotating cast and crew (turnover is high when management is insane) and the core: his cinematographer (future Speed director Jan De Bont), and his family, (Hedren, daughter Melanie Griffiths, and two sons), all of whom he nearly got killed†. Initially panned and buried upon release in 1981, Drafthouse Films is spearheading Roar‘s re-release, beginning with a limited theatrical run this weekend (find a screening near you here), billing it as “the most dangerous movie ever made.”
Having watched the finished product, I can report that Roar is roughly a cross between the movie the Grizzly Man from Grizzly Man might’ve made and mom’s emails about her cat. The plot, such as there is one, concerns a crazy man, played by Noel Marshall (not a stretch) who lives on a reserve with a bunch of big cats. It’s telling that not even Marshall’s fictional alter ego seems to have a coherent explanation for why. There’s an obtuse sheen of simplistic conservationism about the venture, with Marshall’s African side kick (Expository Pete, let’s call him) at one point babbling something about Marshall’s character doing “a comparative study of big cats.” Which appears to involve a very scientific regimen of running around wrestling tigers and singing hippie songs. As Marshall explains it to a bad guy in his grating whine, “we can’t keep exterminating everything that inconveniences us!”
The entire plot is that Marshall’s family, which includes Melanie Griffith at peak hotness, have traveled to Africa to visit him at his lion hovel. But, through a series of confusingly pointless mix-ups, Marshall isn’t there when they arrive! They then spend the next 80 minutes or so being scared of his cats and running away from the cats and getting into comical cat hijinks (being ignorant city folk that they are) until mountain man Marshall shows back up to lion whisper them all to a happy ending.
The simple version is that Noel Marshall thinks big cats are pretty, so he lives with them. In Roar and in real life. The story itself isn’t interesting at all, but the fact that you’re basically watching a crazy man’s $17 million cat video is fascinating. What. The f*ck. Was this idiot thinking. He has clearly created a rich back story for all of his pets – “Roger is the leader! Togar is the mean one!” – only small pieces of which ever make the successful journey from inside his addled head onto the screen.
It’s easy to understand why the story’s limited, since the few times an actor not in Noel Marshall’s immediate family is onscreen, all you can do is wonder how desperate they were to take this insane job. “Okay, now in this scene, I want you to wave this spiked baseball bat at Torgo the full-grown lion over there. Yeah, that’s it, get right up in his face, really make him think you’re mad… Hold on, could you put this hamburger meat in your pockets?”
95% of the movie appears to be Marshall filming his cats playing, and to make that work as a story (“story”), the family has to get into a lot of hijinx. Hiding in ice boxes, hiding in cabinets, hiding in the tiger’s water buckets… honestly, it gets pretty f*cking tedious at times. But it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the inherent contradiction of these actors doing the hokiest cornball vaudeville bullshit imaginable in an atmosphere that makes it all as dangerous as anything Evel Knievel did on a Harley. At one point Marshall cooks up an idiotic vignette where an exhausted Hedren passes out from exhaustion and doesn’t notice when a honey jar spills on her face. Which is so unbelievably dopey, but also serves as a setup for a full-grown jaguar to lick honey off her face, one of the more dangerous stunts in movie history.
It’s fitting that Roar starting shooting in 1970 and didn’t come out until 1981, because 1981 seems just far enough removed to realize the folly of 1970. To understand that majestic wild beasts worth your conservation efforts aren’t necessarily cuddly pets you should try to hug and sing Joni Mitchell songs to. It’s easy enough to read Roar as one batshit hippie’s extended jackass stunt, but it’s equally possible to interpret it as symbolic of an era, a sociological turning point, a lá the Manson family, or Hunter Thompson’s wave. It’s easy to see how a person could watch this guy endanger himself and his family in order to make this silly movie and conclude that not only loopy conservationists, but anyone espousing a liberal, idealistic worldview was a danger to himself and anyone dumb enough to trust him. Seeing some wild-eyed hair farmer try to convince you that the only defense you need from a wild lion is an open mind and good vibes while he bleeds from the scalp… it does kind of make you want to buy a gun and get a crew cut. I honestly think this movie helps explain how Ronald Reagan got elected. You don’t have to read all that into Roar in order to enjoy it, but watching cult movies can be a lot like reading books, in that they’re more about what they inspire you to imagine than what’s actually on the screen.
†From Drafthouse’s press release: “The cast and crew endured countless injuries, with over 70 bloody attacks documented. While nobody was killed, there were several close calls, most notably de Bont being scalped by a lion resulting in 220 stitches on his head. Hedren endured a fractured leg and deep scalp wounds. Griffith was mauled by a lion, resulting in over 100 stitches and reconstructive surgery. Noel was gored so many times that he was eventually hospitalized with gangrene. Maintaining a consistent crew became virtually impossible as injuries and safety risks kept them from returning to set. The production also endured multiple floods—including one that wiped out the entire set—wildfires, a feline illness that decimated their cat population and non-stop financing woes.”