In the yet-unwritten Great Ideas of Art, one will have to go pretty damn far down the list to find “Bankrupt Selves Over Decade to Make Movie About Family Menaced by 150 Major Cats. And Use Own Family.” And in 1973, that is exactly what director Noel Marshall undertook, using all of his family’s resources, energy, and especially its estate full of untrained felines, to create 1981’s Roar. Perhaps intended as some masterwork of conservationist agitprop, the infinitely bizarre Roar plays more like Born Free re-imagined as a snuff film. The film disclaims “No animals were harmed in the making of this film”. That surprises. That seventy cast and crew were maimed along the way? Not so much.
Marshall’s quixotic saga was also that of his family: actress-wife Tippi Hedren, daughter Melanie Griffith, and sons Joe and Jerry. In the early ‘70s the clan adopted their first big cat, and within a few years one animal became dozens—mostly lions, but also tigers, leopards, puma, more! These were not docile, retired animal-actors, but untrained wild creatures. Even if they were familiar to human contact, the beasts were not subject to human control. No matter. Having been inspired on a trip to an African game preserve, Marshall knew what he must do: Film his cats being cats.
There is a throughline in Roar but the script-meat hangs so loosely on the bones that it is without irony that several lions are credited as co-writers and directors. Marshall himself stars as “Hank,” a shaggy naturalist sharing his Tanzanian bushhouse with, oh, all the lions in the universe. Meanwhile, his family (played by his family, of course) is to visit. I think if I were going to be reunited with Tippi Hedren after six years of celibacy, I’d make it to the airstrip to meet them. In this, I exceed Hank, as he is detained by his pro-bono doctor work and/or his fending off two boats of tourists-cum-poachers. Without his help the family makes it to the ranch, anyway, only to find themselves in some insane feline hellscape. Cats!Cats!Cats! Elsewhere on the veldt, Hank wends his way to the airstrip and back, himself challenged by sundry mechanical failures, poachers, and asshole elephants. It all works out in a way, I guess, if the standard is that no one dies on film.
The ABSOLUTE MIRACLE is that NOBODY DIES ON FILM. There are times—like 98% of the entire movie, conservatively—when the actors’ looks of sheer terror are not acting. They are the faces one makes when a gang of enormous predators is having its way with you. When a tiger (or three) has you treed or is capsizing your boat. When an elephant is rampaging on your dinghy; like, literally reducing your skiff to a few pieces of aluminum. At a key moment in the story one of the sons makes a run for it on an aged Suzuki dirtbike. You know what lions seem to enjoy? Chasing teenagers on dirtbikes! The cats wreck—WRUH-ECK!—the ranchhouse, actors are mauled, clothes are rent, real tears and real blood flow.
There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Marshall & Fam’s environmental cause, fuzzy-headed as it is presented in the film. Then again, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Roar doesn’t so much stir ecological awareness as remind that in the age-old battle of Actors versus Dozens of Apex Predators, Melanie Griffith is fuuuucked. This isn’t Man Against Nature—it’s Better Living with PTSD. One is reminded of the great Simpsons joke: “This truly was the greatest vacation ever. Now let us never speak of it again.”
John Clark is a local non-celebrity who in the age-old battle of Man vs Nature is fuuuuucked. Follow him on Twitter if you love a good reTweet: @egjc_wa