A normal movie ends with the American Humane Association’s assurance that “No animals were harmed.” But Tippi Hedren’s doomed 1981 obsession Roar isn’t normal. The AHA’s seal is the first thing on screen — yet, if the authorities had a safety code for humans, Roar would fail. This odd, slight, and near-deadly tribute to nature wound up as a mad masterpiece of mankind’s folly. And this re-release feels kind of like stumbling across the giant heads of Easter Island. You’re fascinated more by the how, what, and why than the actual artistic result. So much sweat and pain, for this?
In 1971, Hedren, her producer husband Noel Marshall, and their four kids (Marshall’s sons and Hedren’s teen daughter Melanie Griffith) decided to adopt a lion. Ten years later, they had seventy-one, plus twenty-six tigers, ten cougars, nine black panthers, four leopards, two jaguars, and a tigon. Hedren and Marshall wanted to make a movie about big cats, with a dangerous stipulation: None of the animals would be trained. They felt a cat should be a cat. At best, the beasts would be socialized. Hedren and the family bottle-fed many of them from infancy, and crossed their fingers that the 450-pound grown cat would remember not to pounce. Wrote Hedren in her memoir, The Cats of Shambala — so named for the preserve they were forced to found when their neighbors kicked the cats out of Sherman Oaks — “I did think that working with live lions might be preferable to live ravens.”
Not so much. Hedren was bedridden for four days after a vicious attack in The Birds. During Roar, she was bitten, scratched, scalped (“I could hear her teeth scraping bone”), and even had her fibula fractured by an elephant. She and Marshall mortgaged their family home, and had their animal sanctuary trashed by a flash flood — twice. Marshall was punctured so often he gave the hospital advice on preventing gangrene. Griffith had to get facial reconstructive surgery after a lion crept up behind her and tried to play peekaboo. (A shot that’s in the film.) An A.D. nearly died when a lion missed his jugular by one inch. And cinematographer Jan de Bont, making his U.S. debut a decade and a half before directing Speed, had the hair on his head peeled off by a lioness named Cherries, requiring 120 stitches. Was Roar unionized? Of course not — legally, that would have required 260 trainers on set.
The cats in Roar are definitely wild. They swarm the screen in numbers that are hard to process. You’ve walked through a city square packed with pigeons. Now mentally replace birds with lions. Director and star Marshall, playing a researcher who invites his family (played by his real-life family) to visit his compound in Africa, wades ribcage-deep through the pack, greeting the beasts with “Hello, lions!” and sometimes by their proper names: Robbie, Gary, Patrick, Diane. They swat at the tires on his motorbike, cluster on the stairway, sink rowboats, pounce like labradors when people open the front door, squeeze necks in their jaws, and knock men down after Marshall chirps, “Come on, let’s play chase!”
The danger — in reality, and on film, which in Roar are essentially the same — is that it’s hard to tell when a lion is just playing. Even the lion doesn’t know for sure. Like house cats, sometimes they want you to rub their tummy. Then the claws come out. Roar was crafted to prove that big cats are lovable, yet the cast spend the whole film holding their breath, rushing through lines so they can get the scene over with. Marshall can’t even finish the sentence, “The cats get a little excited, that’s all!” before being trampled by five lionesses pawing for his throat.
Not that the script matters much anyway. There barely was one, given that every scene depended on the animals’ whims. Roar is a thrilling bore, an inanity with actual peril in every scene. The story is simply “Big cats destroy a house,” since that could be guaranteed. The opening credits make the cats share the blame, sighing, “Since the choice was made to use untrained animals and since for the most part they chose to do as they wished, it’s only fair they share the writing and directing credits.”
After a decade, Hedren and Marshall finished their opus. The food bill alone would have bankrupted most people — each grown cat munched ten pounds of meat a day, and feeding time took six employees three hours. The family sold many of its valuables, including a fur coat from Alfred Hitchcock that Hedren had already decided she couldn’t wear again, and eventually lost its Sherman Oaks home. Critics savaged the film. Daily Variety called it “A Born Free gone berserk.” The big cats retired. Hedren and Marshall divorced. Turns out those shots of lions tearing apart a house were metaphorical.
Wrote Hedren afterwards, “No one in Vegas ever gambled with such abandon.” Hey, even Siegfried and Roy got mauled at the Mirage. Hedren remains the president of the Shambala Preserve near Palmdale, California. And Griffith is on the board.