“No animals were harmed in the making of this film. 70 cast and crew members were.”
On Wednesday, April 15th, I came to Calgary for the Comic Expo. But on that night, I stumbled upon the Calgary Underground Film Festival in the Global Cinema. It’s a good thing I came on that night because that night was a preview of the movie Roar, a notorious 1981 film starring Tippi Hedren and her daughter Melanie Griffith about a man and his wildcat sanctuary. Having bombed in its initial release, it is being rereleased in film festivals with a major curiosity from movie goers. It certainly brought a huge lineup to the theatre. Of course, this is thanks to the advertisements detailing the injuries suffered on set as detailed by the above tagline. When the actors are listed in the trailer, the film describes the injuries they have suffered. And it has clearly worked judging by this lineup.
This has to be the hardest review I’ve had to write. Usually I try to avoid behind the scenes antics unless it furthers the experience of the film. But in this case, It is inevitable because in an unusual way, the behind the scenes antics are the movie. Second of all, there is so much focus on the behind the scenes antics that most people don’t even know what the film is about. Even the program guide gives only a minimal synopsis, focusing mostly on who got hurt behind the scenes. Most of the time, I try to keep my reviews within a one page limit. There’s so much I have to talk about with Roar, the one page limit will be impossible. The biggest problem is I don’t know where the film begins and the behind the scenes ends. As a result, I’m going to divide this film into three parts. The first part will give a summary of the movie itself. The second part will go into details of what happened behind the scenes and who got injured in the process? The final part will be the review itself.
PART ONE: THE MOVIE
Noel Marshall writes, directs and stars as Hank, a man who has turned his house into his own wildlife sanctuary in Africa. He over 110 wildcats living in his front yard. And not just lions. He also has tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars and even cougars. And an elephant. And they aren’t just in the yard. He opens the door to find a whole pride of lions lying on the stairs. This of course terrifies his new assistant Mativo (Kyalo Mativo), especially when one lion tries to steal his jacket. Instead of freezing up in terror like a normal human being, Hank casually walks over them.
Judging by his long winded speeches, he sees his home as his own private Garden of Eden. And the occasional attacks are just a small price to pay. “You got to take the joy with the tragic” is his philosophy.
But there are three things that threaten his Eden. First there is the clash between head lions Robbie and Togor, battling to lead the rest of the pride. The film portrays these two as contrasting ideologies fighting to be the head of the pride. Robbie is made to represent the more cooperative and peaceful leader. Togor is this movie’s Scar, the more aggressive leader. Togor’s blood covered mane should be a dead giveaway.
Second of all is the snake in the grass in the form of hunters who seek to kill the foreign animals.
And his family comes to Africa. His wife (Hedren) and their children, Melanie, John and Jerry (played by their real life children, Griffith, John Marshall and Jerry Marshall) arrive at the house; completely unaware of the wild animals he has lying around. Of course, Hank is away when they arrive. The rest of the film has the family hiding and trying to escape from the wildcats while the lions destroy the house. And Hank tries to race home with two tigers in the backseat of his car.
PART TWO: BEHIND THE SCENES
On the surface, the film seems to be a rip-off of Born Free. Both have lions being raised by people with their bond being the focus. Both have notable theme songs. They even seem to be shot in the same cinematography style. This film was clearly banking on the craze of people bonding with lions that seemed to have been going on in the late 70’s. First there was Born Free, then Christian the Lion. What makes this film stand out is how Marshall and Hedren went about making this movie.
The couple actually adopted and raised over 100 lions and other animals. Unlike most professional films, the wildcats were never trained for the film. We don’t get an exact reason for this but I assume it’s because REALISM.
What could possibly go wrong? Well, as the movie’s tagline makes clear, Murphy’s Law was enforced in the making of this movie with animals attacking the cast and crew. Here are just some of the injuries they have suffered:
- Hedren broke her leg when she fell off an elephant. And then she was bitten in the back of the head by a lion.
- Griffith had to get facial reconstruction surgery after an attack.
- Cinematographer (and future director of Speed and Twister) Jan de Bont’s got the back of his head scalped off by a lion. Would you believe that he actually when back to finish the film?
- Assistant Director Doron Kauper was nearly killed when a lion ripped his throat out and bit his jaw. And then another tried to bite his ear off.
5) Marshall himself had been bitten so many times that he contracted gangrene.
This film took years from waiting for actors and crew to recover. To make matters worse, a lot of crew left the set because they didn’t want to die. No surprise there. What is surprising is the fact the Marshall family actually kept going with this crazy project. One would think at least one of them would have stopped and said “You know what? This whole film might be a really bad idea”. You would especially expect this from Hedren considering what director Alfred Hitchcock put her through in The Birds.
Whatever the reason he had to continue with this movie, Marshall took advantage of the lion’s unpredictability, working the story around their behavior. Marshall obviously had to improvise a lot of dialogue considering how much he interacted with the lions. In fact, the movie begins with a text giving writing credit to the lions, especially Robbie and Togor. And a lot of the attacks end up in the movie.
At least none of the animals were harmed in the making of this film, right? Well, despite the movies’ tagline, it’s debatable whether or not the film should make that claim. First of all, does it count if the animals harm each other? There are a lot of scenes of lions fighting each other. But then there’s the flood. During the filming, a dam broke and flooded the set and killed several of the lions. I assume this wasn’t counted due to this being an accident and a circumstance beyond anyone’s control.
Considering what happened, most films would go out of their way to ignore what happened behind the scenes. Instead, Roar embraces its notoriety, calling itself the most dangerous movie ever made. The trailers even list the injuries the actors suffered onset. Judging by the lineup for the movie, this gamble has paid off.
PART THREE: THE REVIEW
When I say this is the hardest review I’ve ever had to write, I mean it. There are many reasons for this, but it all has to go down to the fact that I honestly don’t know what to make of it. Not to say that I wasn’t entertained. Oh, I was entertained throughout the whole film. But I’m not sure I was entertained in the way the film intended because I’m not certain of the film’s intentions.
I write this review under the assumption that this movie’s banking off the success of Born Free with another film about humans living in harmony with lions but this film feels more like an anti-Born Free. We’re might be expected to buy into Hank’s mantra of harmony between wild animals. There’s just one itty bitty issue, Hank is a complete loony tune. Sure, the fact that he lets a whole pride of lions lie around his house should be a dead giveaway, but he keeps reminding me of Grizzly Man, a documentary about a man’s who’s delusional attempt to live in harmony with Grizzly bears gets him killed. In one scene, he brushes off a lion’s attack on a guest as “making a big deal over a little cut” despite the fact the guest’s head is completely covered in blood.
But the film really gets going when his wife Madeleine (Hedren) and children Melanie (Griffith), John (John Marshall) and Jerry (Jerry Marshall) comes to Africa, completely oblivious to the fact he has wildcats running around his house. Of course, Hank’s not home when they arrive. It is here where the film becomes a horror movie about a family running and hiding in terror as a pride of wildcats break down the doors while their husband/father tries to get home with two grown tigers sit in the back seat.
Throughout most of the film, you are in between wincing in terror and laughing your ass off. You are terrified because you fear for the family’s lives while watching lions break down doors, knock down lockers and fridges and even destroy entire walls. It’s especially cringe inducing considering some of the attacks are real. And you laugh because as is tradition in horror, the main characters completely lack common sense. Hank may be crazy, but Madeleine and the kids are idiots. Sure, you can argue that it’s hard to think when there are literally hundreds of lions around every corner, but when you think it’s a good idea to pull on a lion’s tail, you deserve what you’re going to get. The results are scenes of unintentional hilarity. In one scene, one son comes up with a brilliant idea of hiding from the lions by submerging himself into a barrel full of water. To make matters worse, some lions start lapping up the water. There is even a motorcycle chase in this movie.
And then near the end the film pulls a 180 and suddenly the wildcats are misunderstood. The film ends with a montage of the family living in harmony. And it comes so out of nowhere the audience roared with laughter at this emotional whiplash. What is so strange about this ending is that most of the film and the real life lion attacks prove how unrealistic and dangerous it is to have these unpredictable predators as pets.
It’s near impossible to categorize this movie. I can’t judge the acting because for all I know, the cast was actually terrified for their lives. I can’t judge the plot because I don’t know where the story begins and the real attacks end. Though it was an entertaining film with great cinematography, I can’t say it’s a good movie because the story structure’s a mess. I could say it’s so bad it’s good with many unintentionally hilarious scenes, but it’s too competently made to rank among the lines of The Room and Troll 2. What I can say is that Roar is a unique experience that will gain a cult following with midnight screenings and maybe some audience participation. Actually, I would love to see a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 type of screening.
[Insert Lion Pun Here]
 A family film based on the real life story of Elsa, a lioness raised by game wardens Joy and George Adamson and the first to be successfully released into the wild.
 Believe it or not. No pun intended.