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Noel Marshall’s “Roar”: Humans Were Harmed in the Making of This Film


“Roar,” the 1981 movie starring Tippi Hedren, Noel Marshall, who was then her husband, and a large group of lions and tigers, opens with the ultimate spoiler by omission: a title card declaring that, despite appearances to the contrary, no animal was harmed in the course of its production. The credits say nothing about the protection of humans, who both appear to be, and were, injured while making the film. Hedren, in her autobiography, goes into detail about the horrors of the shoot, which took place largely at her family home in California—the animals were theirs. The story of its making, which Hedren details in her autobiography, is a tale of reckless obsession, of folie à deux that was then shared with many—including the couple’s children—but one need know nothing of the actual story to realize that awful things took place while “Roar” was being made, because they’re an inseparable part of the action. What makes the tale, and the movie—which was long unreleased in the U.S., came out briefly in 2015, and is now streaming through Alamo Drafthouse (which is splitting revenue with local art houses)—all the stranger is that the movie, with all its real blood, plays like warmhearted, often antic comedy.

Hedren’s autobiography is, above all, historically significant, for her detailing of the sexual abuse that she endured from Alfred Hitchcock when they worked together on “The Birds” and “Marnie.” When she rebuffed him, he threatened to ruin her career. She writes, “I was never offered another role as deep and challenging as the two I did for him.” Her career nonetheless continued, if not quite so illustriously, and, in 1969, when she was filming “Satan’s Harvest” on location in Zimbabwe, she and Marshall took a side trip to a game preserve in Mozambique. There, Hedren and Marshall visited a house that was inhabited by thirty lions; Marshall, as Hedren recalls, said the fateful words: “You know, we ought to make a movie about this.”

Hedren and Marshall decided to make the film in the form of a dramatic feature. They brought lions into their own Los Angeles home in order to test the premise, and bought land and built a compound in Soledad Canyon to accommodate a menagerie. “Our lions, tigers, elephant, leopards, and panthers (actually leopards in black coats rather than spotted ones) were joined by a few cougars,” Hedren writes. Even while the family went into a test phase, with just a handful of lion cubs in their house, they faced daily dangers; as Hedren writes, “their teeth are virtual petri dishes of bacteria,” and “being bitten is inevitable.”

The couple brainstormed a story, one that also included their dedication to the protection of wildlife, and Marshall wrote it up as a script. All along, Hedren and the couple’s children (from previous marriages) were slated to act in it—her daughter, Melanie Griffith, and his sons Jerry and John. When no actor could be found who was willing to take the risks involved in playing the male lead—which also required close contact with the animals—Marshall decided to do it himself. (The cast of animals, Hedren writes, grew to include “132 big cats, one elephant, three aoudad sheep, and a collection of ostriches, flamingos, marabou, storks, and black swans.”

Marshall plays a scientist named Hank, who lives with the subjects of his study—lions, tigers, leopards, and other wild animals—at his compound in Tanzania. His wife, Madelaine (Hedren), and their three twentysomething children (called, in the film, Melanie, Jerry, and John), who’ve been living in Chicago, are en route for their first visit to the compound. But before Madelaine and the children arrive, Hank heads off on a work-related trip, and when they show up, they find themselves alone in a house with the animals; they’re terrified, and they struggle to evade and fend off the beasts, who push (and bite and paw and claw and stomp) back. Meanwhile, local white settlers and poachers, occupying land roamed by wild animals, plan to shoot the animals down, starting with the ones kept by Hank, whose research grant is threatened by the settlers’ hostility.

From the start of the film, when Hank, along with an indigenous African friend and associate named Mativo (Kyalo Mativo), is puttering around the compound, the dangers that the animals present—even to the ostensibly experienced scientist—are apparent. The joke of a lion’s affinity for Mativo’s jacket is connected to Hank’s frolic with a lion, which soon turns serious when his hand gets mauled. Soon thereafter, members of the committee evaluating Hank’s grant proposal show up in boats—which are capsized by his swimming tigers, who then maul and bloody the members. The sight of blood in “Roar”—and it’s not uncommon—is shocking and unambiguously real; no prop person can approximate the color, the shine, and the spread of it, just as no actor can simulate the authentic shock of injury. Watching the movie for the first time, I felt exactly as I did the first time I saw real blood in a news photo, at the age of eight (of the boxer Henry Cooper, who’d just lost a bout to Muhammad Ali): the viewing itself seemed to leave the screen and penetrate my very skin. It also seemed, simply, wrong: the sense of horror is both tactile and moral.

The cast and crew of “Roar” endured monstrous dangers both on-camera and off. Melanie Griffith, mauled near the eye, needed plastic surgery. Hedren contracted gangrene and needed skin grafts. Marshall, mauled repeatedly, had blood poisoning. The cinematographer Jan de Bont—who ultimately directed “Speed” and “Twister”—had his scalp torn off and needed a hundred and twenty stitches. At times, Hedren felt that Marshall was heedless of her well-being; yet she writes that she “was into it every bit as much as he was,” and writes of the film’s production as an “obsessive, addictive drama.”

Yet despite the real-life gore that went into the movie—and despite Hedren’s and the children’s obvious terror, as well as that of Mativo, of other cast members, and of Marshall himself—the movie’s depiction of this violence and this pain is scattershot, and is played for laughs. The scene of Hank bloodied in Mativo’s company is frolicsome; the scene of the members being bloodied is nearly gleeful. Then comes the movie’s main set piece, occurring when Madelaine and the children reach the house, which appears to them to be empty; they enter, looking for Hank, not realizing that, perched above them on the second floor and looking down from its balcony, a crowd of lions and tigers is watching them. Then, a swarm of lions and tigers waiting outside bursts in on them, soon joined by the ones upstairs, who pursue and terrify the family. In these sequences, “Roar” feels like a home-invasion movie, like “The Birds” (the film that made Hedren a star) reënacted with wildcats. Finally finding themselves face to face with the animals, the visitors are terrified and, in their efforts to flee them and fend them off, they create situations that are as terrifying as they are absurd. Lions and tigers break down doors and break through walls; as one son hides in a closet that a lion wrenches open, another son hides in a cabinet that a lion knocks over, and Melanie hides in a cabinet that the animals then knock over and stomp to splinters before clawing at her.

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