Over the years, cinema has offered up its fair share of visionaries who skillfully blended artistic integrity with technical skill and natural storytelling ability to create wonderfully entertaining, sometimes thought provoking, films that changed the artistic landscape forever. I could write for days about the great works of cinema, and the auteurs that created them, but that’s not what I’m hired by Mondo Exploito to do. I’m here to write about the absolute worst of what cinema has to offer. And in cinema, you don’t get much worse than misguided vanity projects from untalented directors with delusions of being auteurs.
USA, 1981, Noel Marshall
Well, as it turns out, a lot.
Unsurprisingly, lions aren’t great actors. Sure they bring a certain naturalistic quality to the table, but they rarely hit their marks and usually just do whatever they want to do. Noel Marshall was clearly aware of this and just shot around them, with questionable results. The production of Roar is well documented (Hedren even wrote a book about it, called The Cats of Shambala) and over seventy crew members were hurt during the eleven years it took to make the movie. Watching it last night, all I could think was “only 70?” Frankly, I’m amazed nobody died.
The plot of Roar is beautifully simplistic. Hank (Noel Marshall), an American scientist estranged from his family, is running a big cat sanctuary. He’s excited because his family are coming to visit. However, while travelling to pick them up, his boat sinks because he’s filled it with so many cats.
As a result he’s late and his family catch a bus and head to the sanctuary alone, unaware of the hundred or so cats that are waiting for them. Hank’s family — played by Tippi Hedren, Marshall’s sons Jerry and John, and their daughter, a very young Melanie Griffith — arrive and are besieged by hundreds of cats right away. There is no messing about here. The cats are just being friendly, but you can forgive Hank’s family for not understanding that because the cats are massive and lethal. It doesn’t help that one of the lions is trying to prove his superiority by genuinely trying to kill them. This gigantic cat called Togar, covered in blood from a recently eaten Zebra chases them through the house, smashing through every door in Hank’s house. They’re only saved when the alpha-male, Robbie, saves the day.
Meanwhile, Hank is casually travelling home with his friend, Mativo (Kyalo Mativo), gleefully not caring in the slightest about the danger his family is in. In fact, he even goes on a detour to rescue two tigers from poachers. At one point he even leaves Mativo stuck in a tiger surrounded tree while he tries to find better transport.
I have to say, whenever Noel Marshall was on screen, I was grinning. He is absolutely insane and it’s not difficult to see the parallels between his character’s behavior and his own. It’s this kind of brazen, unhinged glee that makes for the most fascinating films, and there’s a knowing twinkle in Marshall’s eyes that say he is completely aware of just how crazy this whole thing is.
As the movie goes on, there is a tonal shift from horror to comedy. Once it becomes clear the cats aren’t trying to kill the family, it just becomes impossible for them to escape. Everything that could go wrong does go wrong. For instance, when they finally escape on a boat, they’re attacked by an angry elephant that smashes their boat to smithereens before attacking the family (breaking Tippi Hedren’s leg in the process, apparently) and chasing them back to the house.
Melanie Griffith is bitten in the head and neck. Both sons are attacked multiple times. Hedren knocks over a shelf and is hit on the head with four falling food jars before having her head covered in maple syrup – attracting a panther to lick it off her face.
Everybody falls off the roof of the house about five times each. Together with its comical soundtrack and slapstick humour, the film becomes some twisted mutant hybrid of nature documentary crossed with Home Alone.
What makes the movie really special though, is the message. Noel Marshall is clearly insane, yes. But why did he make this movie? Was it to torture his family? Possibly. Was it to make a lot of money? Probably not. No, the real reason he (and Hedren) made this movie was to portray lions and tigers as misunderstood creatures, and to raise awareness of the damage being done by poachers and the fashion industry to their species.
To get his point across in as heavy handed a way as possible, Marshall included a subplot about hunters trying to shut the sanctuary down. Near the end of the movie, two of the hunters are attacked and killed by two lions.
You would expect some kind of repercussion for this, but instead Hank covers it up. He screams the lions back to the sanctuary and insists that Mativo doesn’t tell anybody because it would ruin his family reunion. Because leading his family into a near death confrontation with over a hundred cats wouldn’t have done that already.
Instead the movie ends with a few words coming on screen damning poachers and the fashion industry, calling for people to “show your disgust with anyone who buys or owns furs or ivory”, and to donate to African animal sanctuaries. It’s astonishingly heavy handed and exactly the kind of single-minded insanity that I like to see in cinema.
Noel Marshall might not be an artist, but he had something to say and was deluded enough to think he had the directorial chops to get that message across. For that, I applaud him because this movie is magic.
Roar took eleven years to make. It wrapped in 1981. Tippi Hedren divorced Noel Marshall in 1982.
Roar has recently been picked up for re-release by Drafthouse Films, but in a couple of months you’ll be able to pick it up on blu-ray from Olive Films. You can also pick up a second hand copy of Tippi Hedren’s book The Cats of Shambala if you can afford it.