There has never been, and will likely never be, another film like Roar.
It’s a piece of cinema almost as astonishing on the screen as in the behind-the scenes-detail. Shot on location in Africa, it tells the story of Hank (Noel Marshall), a beardy weird-y conservationist with an open-door policy with regards to wildlife, and who just so happens to be away from the lodge when his family turn up; his family who don’t seem to have been apprised of the lion situation.
For there are lions, and not just lions – panthers, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars – roughly 110 of them in all, and an elephant perhaps best described as a bit of a prima donna. He crumples the escaping family’s boat like a tin can. And he’s not the only one to wreak havoc on watercraft. One of the key conflicts in fiction is, of course, man versus nature, but you’ve never seen it like this.
A large portion of the plot involves Madeleine (Marshall’s wife and former Hitchcock blonde, Tippi Hedren), Melanie (Hedren’s daughter, Melanie Griffith), Jerry (Marshall’s son Jerry), and John (Marshall’s son John) being chased around the Swiss Family Robinson-style lodge by big game cats, taking cover beneath upturned furniture – or else furniture that is soon upturned – and being repeatedly thrown from the roof of the lodge into the reservoir that surrounds it.
You’ve heard of nature documentary but this is nature drama: even as they’re hiding out in barrels – one full of water, lion’s tongues lapping the surface – or making an escape in a boat, you fully expect the actors to be mauled at any moment – and some of them are! There’s even a throwaway reference to the film that made/destroyed Hedren’s name and here she is disregarding W.C. Field’s famous edict yet again (the one about never working with children or animals).
Roar‘s publicity sensationally declares that while no lions were harmed in the making of the film over seventy members of cast and crew were. Tippi Hedren fractured her leg when she was thrown by the elephant and Director of Photography Jan de Bont, who went on to direct Speed, required 220 stitches when a lion tore his scalp off. This sense of peril adds to the mounting hysteria and with it the film’s comedy.
When the pride decides to mark the family’s arrival by dragging a freshly killed zebra into the lobby, Madeleine fitfully declares, “Look what the cat dragged in”. It’s like they’re the free-spirited, liberal family who’ve just moved to a new neighborhood only to find themselves menaced by a street gang. And the street gang are lions.
The whole production plays like a work of comic melodrama, as if The Towering Inferno had really been shot inside a burning skyscraper or The Poseidon Adventure aboard a genuinely sinking ship.
Roar is nothing if not authentic: the main lions, including the heroic Robbie and villainous bloody-mawed Togar, are credited as performers. An opening inter-title informs us that their behavior largely dictated the plot. What with the time jumps and that bike that vanishes from a car boot it definitely looks like the continuity guy was lying down on the job. Then again I wouldn’t want to be the guy to ask for another take.
The big cats even have distinct personalities, like the mopey Gary who refuses to leave the lodge to “go and play”. They’re both playful, capricious, and deadly, commanding both love and respect. The lions also display great comic timing, idly tugging the boat back to shore as the family try desperately to row away.
Hank/Noel is the only one that shows no fear in the face – and claws – of them; the fact of which his friend and companion Mativo (Kyalo Mativo) reacts with good-natured disbelief. Noel’s interventions between the snarling, clawing males is out-and-out suicidal.
Roar‘s conservationist message, which is hammered home in the final reel, almost feels like over-egging the (lion) pudding. There’s a ludicrously evil French hunter and his accomplice who – thanks to Liam Fleming for this comparison – looks a lot like Mr. Kidd from Diamonds Are Forever. The film is a testament to these amazing creatures and the commitment of the cast and crew on a shoot that would make even Francis Ford Coppola blanch.
Roar spent eleven turbulent years in production, cost $17 million to make, saw dozens of people savaged by marauding lions, and ultimately bombed at the box office. Which is inexplicable to me. Did they not see the publicity?! Was it worth all the bloodshed? Probably not. Am I glad it exists? Hell yes.
With scenes that play like the world’s greatest ever cat video and Robert Hawk’s cheesily earnest soundtrack, the film is guaranteed to leave you glowing. As they say, home is where the pride is.