“ROAR”!: See The Movie About A “Brainsick” Family Living With 150 Lions!

By on April 15, 2015

“No animals were harmed in the making of this film. 70 members of the cast and crew were.”

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That’s the awesome tagline for ROAR, which will begin a limited theatrical release in about 40 theatres some thirty-four years after it was first released to give new audiences another big-screen chance to gasp at the sight of a family living with more than 150 lions, not to mention tigers and jaguars and elephants.

The story of ROAR begins in 1969, when actress Tippi Hedren (if you don’t recognize the name already, you might remember her from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds) was over in Africa, filming a movie called Satan’s Harvest. Her manager/husband/director/producer Noel Marshall — the executive producer of The Exorcist, as well as The Harrad Experiment, which had starred Hedren and daughter Melanie Griffith’s future husband Don Johnson — came over to visit his wife on the set.

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Marshall learned there were nearby wildlife preserves, in Mozambique, so he and Hedren decided to have go on a little safari vacation, where they learned about the over-hunting of wild lions, tigers and jaguars, as well as the inhumane treatment of big cats kept in captivity, but they also witnessed something else that was pretty astonishing: an abandoned game warden’s home that was overrun with lions that had made it their den.

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Marshall returned to the U.S. and soon began thinking about making a film about a family living with lions, lots and lots of lions. He and Hedren foresaw the story as a kind of family picture, with an activist slant about big cats losing their natural habitats. And Marshall planned to use his own family.

Marshall, Hedren and their kids —teenage Melanie Griffith, and young sons Jerry Marshall, and John Marshall (and son Joel Marshall worked on the film as an art director) — were all living in a Sherman Oaks mansion at the time. He began writing a script, which ended up being bout a wildlife preservationist named Hank who is living in the middle of nowhere in Africa in a house that has been completely taken over by roughly 200 lions and tigers total.

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In the movie, Hank hasn’t seen his family in a while because he’s been busy trying to stand up to local poachers. On the day his family comes to Africa to visit, Hank goes to the airport to pick them up, and later they end up at the house by themselves, and for approximately the next 20 hours, they run screaming from room to room while being chased by lions, terrified for their lives.

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Noel Marshall in LIFE (May 1971)

Marshall not only planned to star as Hank, but also planned to direct the film, his first, and he and his wife felt that to make it feel honest and real, that none of the animals should be trained. They felt a cat should be a cat. At best, the beasts would be socialized. Marshall approached numerous wild animal trainers for support, but they were told their idea was a suicide mission and they were dismissed as both “brainsick” and “completely and utterly insane.” Marshall finally spoke to a wild animal trainer who listened to his ideas — Ron Oxley — who told him that “to get to know about lions, you’ve got to live with them for a while,” so Marshall and Hedren invited a large full-grown and presumably tame lion, named Neil, to live with them in their Sherman Oaks home.

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Tippi Hedren in LIFE (May 1971)

In May of 1971, their not-too-typical Southern California lifestyle — showing Marshall and his family sharing their home with a lion — was documented in a great photo essay by LIFE photographer Michael Rougier. In the photos, we see a teenage Griffith, hanging out with Neil in the family swimming pool, and Neil, liking a nosy pest, looking in the refrigerator. They are, we must admit, pretty amazing photos.

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Hedren in LIFE (May 1971)

Neil was just the first lion, of course; later, Marshall and Hedren set up a lion breeding program in their mansion, and for the next six years, they lived with a pride of lions. Since the lions themselves were going to be actors in the film, it was decided that the movie would be shot documentary-style, with multiple cameramen covering the action with up to eight Panavision 35mm cameras. Marshall planned for a six month, $3 million production, but almost immediately there were problems. Big problems.

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Melanie Griffith in LIFE (May 1971)

The cost of feeding eight lions was enough to bankrupt most people, even those pulling down Hollywood salaries: each grown cat ate ten pounds of meat a day, and feeding took six paid employees three hours. The family sold many of their valuables, including a fur coat, a gift from Hitchcock that Hedren had already decided she couldn’t wear again.

And soon the neighbors were complaining of the noise, smell, and general safety of living next to eight lions. After they were kicked out of their Sherman Oaks home, Hedren (who was injured on the set of The Birds by attacking birds) is reported to have said: “I did think that working with live lions might be preferable to live ravens.”

They ended up buying a ranch 40 miles north of L.A., a sprawling preserve where they continued working on ROAR. Within the next ten years they would acquire 71 additional lions, plus 26 tigers, 10 cougars, nine black panthers, four leopards, two jaguars and a tigon (that’s a lion/tiger mix).

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But the problems continued. Maintaining a consistent crew became virtually impossible as injuries and safety risks kept them from returning to set. More than 70 on-set attacks were documented. Was ROAR unionized? Of course not — legally, that would have required 260 trainers to be on set.

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Up-and-coming European cinematographer Jan de Bont (this was his first U.S. film production — he has since worked on movies like Speed and Twister, which he directed) was literally scalped by a lioness named Cherries, who ripped the top of his head off. It had to be reattached with more than 120 stitches.

The family probably suffered the worst of the injuries: Noel Marshall was bitten many times, often on camera, and he had to be hospitalized with gangrene from puncture wounds that got infected and didn’t properly heal. Hedren suffered a fractured leg wound during a scene with Timbo the elephant, and found that she had black gangrene in that leg as well (this was discovered while visiting her son Jerry in the hospital for his own leg injury). Melanie Griffith’s injuries, witnessed on-camera, included having to get facial reconstructive surgery, needing more than 100 stitches.

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The production also endured multiple floods —including one that wiped out the entire set—wildfires, a feline illness that decimated their cat population and non-stop financing woes. Sorta makes the on-set production problems suffered by Francis Ford Coppola during the filming of Apocalypse Now in the Philippines seem a walk in the park.

Although the action that takes place in the movie covers a relatively short span of time, about 30 hours, the production of ROAR itself dragged on for years, and Marshall eventually ended up spending a mind-boggling sum of $17 million of his own money to finish the film. Finding distribution would take another half-decade.

In 1981, ROAR was curiously marketed as a “ferocious comedy,” believe it or not. Marshall said he considered ROAR to be a “comedy of the bizarre,” and his lions and tigers an ensemble of improv geniuses, but audiences didn’t then — and probably won’t now — know what to make of the terror the family faces simply being around this many lions.  Now the film is being marketed as “the most dangerous movie ever made.”

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John Marshall in LIFE (May 1971)

In the opening credits, Marshall even jokes that he decided make the cats share in film’s credits, or the blame, saying: “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.” Hardy har.

In the end credits, the tone becomes a little more serious, and preachy: “The lions that appeared to be ‘killed’ in this film are all back to playing with their friends. But the animals that are being slaughtered in Africa are a reality. Many species are near extinction. In the eleven years since we began filming ‘ROAR’, in most areas of Africa, 90 per cent of the animals have been killed. These are thinking, feeling beings who need your help to survive. Something must be done, and there is much you can do: Contribute to one of the many effective wildlife organizations. Organize protests in front of stores that sell wild animals skins, furs or ivory. Show your disgust with anyone who buys or owns furs or ivory. If at all possible, plan a trip to an African country with a good conservation record. Tourism is the best incentive for preserving wildlife. The preservation of Africa’s precious wildlife heritage is the responsibility of the whole world.”

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When ROAR was first released, ten years after production began in 1971, it earned a meager $2 million in box-office receipts. Critics savaged the film, and in particular Marshall’s direction and acting — he never made another film. The big cats retired. Hedren and Marshall divorced, and it reportedly took years him another ten years to recover from injuries and complications he suffered from being mauled so many times, ncluding gangrene. He died in 2010.

Today, Hedren still runs The Roar Foundation, a non-profit founded by Hedren that includes the Shambala Preserve sanctuary for big cats on that same sprawling ranch, 40 miles north of L.A., but she — and her daughter Melanie Griffith, who went on to have a substantial acting career after the horrible experiences filming ROAR — reportedly don’t want to have anything to do with the film’s re-release (the film is owned by Marshall’s daughter Stephanie, and it has been caught up in lawsuits for years).

The wildly wacky folks at Drafthouse Films will distribute ROAR to selected theatres, and it will be available on Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand platforms later this summer.

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Griffith in LIFE (May 1971)

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.