This year saw the US release of Hungarian film White God, a modern allegory of class oppression that swaps out humans for canines and features the undoctored sight of over 250 semi-trained street dogs filling the frame at once. It is a stunning feat of resources, with a behind-the-scenes story of execution matching director Kornel Mundruczo’s narrative aims. But many acts of animal-centric cinematic ambition—or hubris—aren’t as lucky. Re-released this year under the Drafthouse Films label, the 1981 film Roar boasts such a staircase of steps toward insanity that you’d trip a mile going down.
It began with an unlikely pair: The Birds actress Tippi Hedren and her husband, talent manager and The Exorcist producer Noel Marshall, the latter of whom envisioned a directorial debut so berserk that over 100 untamed lions, tigers, cougars, and cheetahs (and two elephants) would keep that filmography to a single credit.
The story goes that in 1969, when Marshall visited Hedren while she was filming Satan’s Harvest in Africa, they took the opportunity to visit nearby safari wildlife preserves. During a tour in Mozambique they stumbled upon a true spectacle: an abandoned warden’s home, overrun with lions that had made it their den—order and disorder wrapped up in one location. The couple grew inspired, and saw the basis of a film in their travels.
They foresaw an activist drama based around animals losing their natural habitats, filmed in California on their purchased ranch 40 miles north of Los Angeles. Marshall penned the script, about a wildlife preservationist (played by himself) who lives among lions, fearing for their safety against poachers and the government. Marshall planned to direct, and Hedren and their children—a young Melanie Griffith, Jerry Marshall, and John Marshall—were to star as the preservationist’s family, forced to fend off the animals themselves when they visit.
What started as a planned six month, $3 million production ballooned to five years and $17 million (much of it self-funded by Hedren and Marshall) as the reality of filming a narrative with lion co-stars became clearer. Marshall and his crew (including DP and future Twister director Jan de Bont) had no choice but to film the scenes documentary-style, covering the action with up to eight Panavision 35mm cameras. Certain scenes, like one where Marshall drives a jeep with two lions riding in the back, took weeks of daily rehearsals to pull off.
It also became apparent the animals couldn’t stop attacking the cast and crew long enough to get a scene in the can. Over 70 attacks were documented: de Bont was effectively scalped by a lion, resulting in 120 stitches; Noel Marshall was bitten many times, often on camera, and hospitalized with gangrene; Hedren suffered a fractured leg wound during a scene with Timbo the elephant. The actress later found black gangrene in that leg as well— discovered while visiting Jerry in the hospital for his leg injury, no less. The list goes on. A horrific injury that Melanie Griffith suffered is even witnessed on-camera, during a scene in which she lay in a lion’s grasp (facial reconstructive surgery proved necessary).
Incidents like these have placed the film in an uneasy category of recognition: some cast and crew speak openly about the struggles on the film, while others, including Griffith, want nothing more to do with it. During filming, it was suggested that, due to Noel’s involvement, the production had been struck by the fabled “Curse of The Exorcist”—the inexplicable downfall of anyone linked to that production. They had a point: this was following floods and illnesses that had ravaged the Roar set, killed or released lions, destroyed equipment, and caused an eight-week delay before filming restarted.
Distribution would take another half-decade, with Roar finally being released in 1981 to a meager $2 million box-office take. But that result is no surprise: without the full terrifying backstory, the film is a slapdash yet compelling mess.
Billed upon release as a “ferocious comedy,” the label now seems like a retroactive decision to mask the serious drama that Marshall tried and failed to make. There is a tangible sense in every scene of the cast trying to act casual throughout stilted line readings, undercut by the fact that a real-life mauling happens every other minute—it makes you feel like the crazy one for worrying about their safety. Take Togar, a pre-Lion King Scar that rampages in and maims at least one appendage per scene, and witness how Noel Marshall shrugs it off, as though Togar’s just the party guest who can’t handle his drink.
Many have likely already been introduced, unknowingly, to the eccentric world that Marshall, Hedren, and their children inhabited around Roar in the 1970s. An incredible photoset from LIFE Magazine depicted Melanie Griffith and the family lounging around her family’s Beverly Hills home with Neil, a fully-grown lion that they acquired after an animal trainer proposed the idea. Later, they brought seven more lions into their home before neighbors complained of the noise, smell, and general safety of living next to eight lions.
On its surface, the entire Roar saga concerns a “brainsick” family with pure intentions—regardless of whether every family member shared those causes—skirting death daily for the sake of cinema. Those intentions followed through, however: The Roar Foundation, a non-profit founded by Hedren that includes the Shambala Preserve sanctuary for big cats, has been open ever since. As for the film itself, Roar remains a dimmed blaze of ambition behind the scenes, and a fascinating document of the embers left behind.
For more inspiring stories of fearless filmmaking, watch the first episode of The Creators Project's Art World series, A New Wave of Iraqi Cinema: