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Roar (1981)

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

From the mysteries around Alec Baldwin killing a political journalist on a film set to the production of family-friendly art such as The Wizard of Oz entailing pain behind the scenes, deadly incidents in media creation fascinate many audiences as much as the finished products do. Many tragedies simply come about as accidents caused by carelessness or unexpected chance, yet there is a certain type of work spearheaded by the likes of epic auteurist Cecil DeMille & daring documentarian Werner Herzog that embodies a grasp for the grand so ambitious as to practically mandate sacrifices in its making. Of these creations birthed from violence, few are as notorious as Roar, the brainchild of Hollywood agent & animal lover Noel Marshall, who used funds from co-producing box-office hit (and also tumultuously developed) The Exorcist to make a movie most would know better than to try bringing into reality. This movie was a survival story of a real family really being attacked by real lions, tigers, elephants, and other deadly beasts by the dozen. It's a harrowing journey into a singular artist's vision that couldn't be stopped, even when all signs at the moment of its catastrophic production (over 74 people injured despite miraculously zero casualties) suggested it probably should have been.

The plot of Roar follows intrepid (if insane) Europid environmentalist Hank -- played by the only man capable of the part: wild-eyed Noel Marshall himself donning frazzled hippie hair & Bob Ross beard -- preserving animals in Africa on a tiny preserve. Going by production tales, about 150 formidable felines roamed around the 2,000 square feet used for the central location, a moated two-story shack from which bickering beasts bellow & billow from every space. This terrifyingly untamed kingdom of big cats is disrupted into further absolutely-not-safeness by a rogue lion trying to take over the pride & some poachers aiming to neutralize what a grant committee deems an unacceptably uncontrollable gathering of 300-pound alpha carnivores. Plus, Hank's family (played by Noel's real-life relatives) is about to visit so they can get mixed up in all this, too. As if he didn't have enough to deal with from just being regularly attacked by his carnivorous company!

Complicating the chaos is that Noel/his Hank character is demonstrably insane, although Noel's direction considers him(self) some sort of pacifying sage. Yelling "Whoa, break it up!" he rushes into real lion fights to accomplish little more than getting his own injuries, some of which resulted in Noel getting gangrene & blood poisoning. Anyone with a brain & comprehension of genetics can tell you these predators aren't capable of reason; if anything, trying to run among them & reform them mid-brawl as hank does signals that you aren't a source of fear but rather of food. As everyone is getting gnawed on, Hank assures a longsuffering black assistant -- this is one of those flicks where the blacks are uniformly more reasonable & peaceful than the whites, although this one poor guy's relatable terror is played up for cruel laffs, arguably suggesting that African experience is little more than a punchline in the film -- that these wild animals are totally agreeable as long as you're chill: reactionary violence, not dangerous nature. Sub-saharan African natives are on average dozens of IQ points lower than the average Caucasian, yet even they aren't capable of such staggering naivete as to give the benefit of the doubt to others that are actively chewing their arms apart as hippie Hank/Noel. Such questionable acts as mixing leopard cubs to nurse on a lioness or singing to tigers that are climbing aboard & sinking his boat signal that Hank/Noel doesn't know ecology for mutual (if separate) well-beings so much as use it for over-intimate sentimentality cred: an anti-Madison Grant boomer.

Supposedly these carnivores are normally as peaceful as lambs, with the alpha & by extension the others being aggressive only in response to dark, scar-faced Togar, a lion who randomly attacks others in hopes of being deemed alpha. This destabilizing bloodshed is described as not a feral rampage that must be stopped by at least separation so much as a misunderstanding resulting from the mean ol' boogieman of excluding others instead of singing "Kumbaya" hand-in-paw. "He'd really like to be part of the group; he just doesn't know how to go about it," says Hank as Togar rips flesh asunder from other lions. Bits of lion politics & yearnings for coexistence are sprinkled in among extended periods of screaming terror, hearts & faces alike bleeding.

What ensues isn't so much a story with progression or even twists & turns so much as a chaotic series of horrifying hijinks. There are usually literally dozens of untrained lions occupying the frame with visibly fearful actors at any given moment, with Roar incessantly bombarding the poor people with having to run & hide from sprinting, swiping predators clearly out to kill them at times. This must be seen to be believed; it blurs the line between fiction film footage & evidence to be used in a lawsuit. It's a nigh-plotless over an hour & a half of Noel & his kin getting mauled into serious real-life injuries: an incessant procession of horror in tone-deaf family-adventure dressing.

Marshall's direction makes odd moves to justify the jungle japes. The excessive numbers of the masses of maneaters -- the production took about any critter they could get their hands on -- aims for an arguably comedic tone would expect from a Looney Tunes toon in which a wacky hero might find himself surrounded by a threat so large in scale as to register as absurd. The camera is so close to the carnage that a viewer fears for the retroactive safety of all unfortunate enough to be present during these catastrophic catfights; instead of watching from a safe distance, the camera gets up close & personal for an impressive kineticism to compositions that adds to the animated effect. But this was real, and the dissonance is even more pronounced considering the leads' nigh-suicidal pacifism.

See, this is a conservationist tale, with Hank & his family (outwardly) wishing no harm upon God's innocent, deadly creatures even while being mauled by them; the humble humans hide or even try to break up beastly brawls instead of fighting back against the attacking animals. The only entities not given the "they're just misunderstood" treatment are a couple of white-skinned, frowny-faced euthanizers who are told off by morally superior blacks & then unceremoniously devoured by animals for their attempts to forcibly quell the situation. Yes, we're going for a tone of sugary supplication one would expect from a Disney flick, right down to jaunty clarinet toots as the lions go berserk. How harming -- I mean, charming!

Hank/Noel comes off as delusional not only for running amok among untamed animals that wouldn't hesitate to murk him at a moment's notice but also for alleging that one can commune with beings drastically less capable of reason (if not deadliness). It's a somewhat unfair position for critters (a handful of whom were the only living beings to die as a result of production) that obviously will not rise to civilized or even domesticated standards of conduct, though Noel seems to have a genuine affection for the feral furred fellows. If anything, he displays an emotional as well as physical vulnerability; you feel he's most at home in the adrenaline rush of coddling or confronting a total Other. The case of Timothy "Grizzly Man" Treadwell comes to mind as another who favored the primal over the human, although Marshall was a strongly convincing charismatic who managed to rope in (if only for periods of time) many amateurs with no idea what they were in for trying to enter the film industry, as well as some true talents such as established cinematographer Jan de Bont (Turkish Delight, Die Hard, Speed) who were ride-or-die through the years of astoundingly arduous production. Noel had a vision with pull, including involving his actual family.

And not just any family: a handful of major names are put through the wringer for this furious fantasy. Up until the film's completion (go figure), Noel was married to Tippi Hedren, who evidently was down for round two of being mobbed by animals after leading in Hitchcock's The Birds, as well as for being subject to the will of a dangerous & exciting man as in Marnie. Along with the couple's own sons was Tippi's daughter Melanie Griffith, who by now had played several teen roles of a decidedly self-destructive sort, such as a runaway that emotionally-drained private-eye Gene Hackman must save in Night Moves as well as the object of naked lust for a hebephiliac Hebrew geezer in the (rather revealing in more than just the literally unclothed sense) kosher creepshow The Garden. Both of these actresses had already immersed themselves with the seediness of showbiz, yet Roar stands out as by far their most unpleasant experience, for all the grave injuries -- some of which required reconstructive surgery -- on set from literal clawing predators instead of just figurative sexual ones.

Marshall's direction doesn't play favorites, either. If anything, his real-life family is subjected to more brutality than anyone else. Their characters have arrived to live with the estranged Hank -- he does strike one as adjacent to a lonely cat lady reeling from a tough breakup -- after deciding Chicago is too dangerous. Funny considering the similarities between present-day Chicago & Africa, but I digress. Early in the story when Hank's family has landed in Africa & is making their unwitting way to his cat-conquered compound, the sons break out into a disproportionally bitter fight when one brother makes a harmless joke against the other. See, humans are more prone to "toxic masculinity" or whatever than ever-innocent critters, who are given motivation for their allegedly unnatural violence. Who are the REAL animals? Anyway, this inane enmity evaporates when the boys & girls are besieged by beasts soon after. To the tune of the soundtrack's goofy oboe toots, they're shredded, smothered, and entrapped by Noel's cats.

Perhaps the height of this seemingly sadistic treatment comes during one of the most evidently cartoon-inspired moments that just feels wrong in live-action: Tippi has collapsed from exhaustion onto the floor of a barely-barricaded kitchen only for a procession of jars to crash upon Hedren's unprotected head. Aside from the likelihood that Noel would be the type to confuse safely-breakable stunt "candy glass" with a normal glass full of candy, the gratuitous cruelty is piled on the camera's emphasis of a jar's thick honey sluggishly (and suggestively) streaming down poor Tippi's fatigued face -- and that's before a black panther strolls in to brutalize her further. Oh, and this is a bit after Tippi's had her shirt ripped off a few scenes earlier, with her replacement garb now soaked & clinging to her frail form. Of the interviews with Noel's family I've seen, none outright call him vicious (usually just sticking to "insane") aside from chewing out cameramen who didn't dare to venture close to the action, but there's a strong likelihood of some kina antisocial venom in his vision.

Noel seems more endeared with his natural enemies than his kinfolk, personal priorities & actual reality being juxtaposed in a morbidly fascinating tangle. This reaches its peak at the end of the film, which flips a tonal switch to make one of the most absurd swan-dives into sentimentalism the big screen has ever seen. While Hank races to return to his abandoned animal preserve upon learning his family is there, the terrified relatives finally manage to escape beyond the compound's fence, deciding that an empty shed about 20 feet away from where the giant killer animals were pursuing them would be a good spot to drop asleep. Of course, the animals climb the fence & enter the "hiding" spot, of which the characters inexplicably have left the door wide open. In between screams of "WHY DID YOU DO THAT YOU STUPID IDIOTS," a viewer may brace himself to see a family dinner served to the carnivores that had just been trying to consume these people.

A sane viewer would be wrong. Instead, the maneaters snuggle up to their prey for a nap, with the film cutting from the grisly deaths of the evil white-male poachers to the hippie family waking up to miraculously being best buddies with the beasts that had been trying to main them not five minutes of screentime (and practically diagetic realtime) earlier. Evidently, falling asleep in a danger zone & letting your enemies surround you fixes everything. Soon Hank reunites with his now-unfazed folk, and the sun is shining and the birds are singing and the viewer's jaw is hanging. Some Woodstock musician on the soundtrack starts crooning about "home in Eden" & fighting pollution as a montage of the now-cuddling family (which now includes the black guy Hank had earlier left dangling from a tiger-surrounded tree as a distraction so he can get away singing on his bike) bonding & cuddling with the animals unfolds. There aren't many ways to describe the sheer madness of this ending; it's in a class of unreality all its own.

Roar is so fascinating not only for its extremities but also for how mightily it struggles to suggest a reality entirely different than the one it clearly depicts. It preaches coexistence & equality while showing that interspecies intersectionality is a foolish pipe dream that results in all parties being lethally harmed. That said, Noel Marshall & company clearly had good intentions, wishing to promote animal conservation during a time when many species were under serious siege in a recently re-savagized Africa. And it must be said that these creatures are truly an awesome, majestic sight in the film, especially for how soundly they dominate fragile humankind. Indeed, Mrs. Heddren went on to make major organizational contributions to ecology, including starting a preserve with the (surviving) animals from this astoundingly illegal & irresponsible film shoot. Through indirect means, the film was in part responsible for doing good for the animal kingdom despite not making back its money. It's an insane achievement that could have been made by only an irrational confidence & passion -- of people perhaps suicidally altruistically venturing into the primal in order to compensate for weaknesses in relation to the rational & otherwise socially thorny human world.


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Freeman shows you the hidden methods & meanings of media in its varying forms.

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