AS FAR AS hooks go, Roar's got a pretty good one: Noel Marshall, a film producer, agent, husband to Tippi Hedren, and notably not an animal trainer, blew $17 million trying to direct his first (and ultimately only) film, which mostly starred a few hundred untrained lions, tigers, pumas, panthers, jaguars, and cheetahs. Helping him in this quest were a rotating cast and crew (turnover is high when management is insane) and a few people who apparently couldn't escape: Marshall's cinematographer (future Speed director Jan de Bont), and Marshall's family (Hedren, Hedren's daughter Melanie Griffith, and two sons), all of whom he nearly got killed. Initially panned and buried upon release in 1981, Drafthouse Films is spearheading Roar's re-release, citing its 70 cast and crew injuries to declare it "the most dangerous movie ever made."
Having watched the finished product, I can report that Roar is roughly a cross between the movie the Grizzly Man from Grizzly Man might've made and your mom's emails about her cat. The plot, such as there is one, concerns a crazy man, played by Marshall (not a stretch), who lives on a reserve with a bunch of big, lethal cats. It's telling that not even Marshall's fictional alter ego seems to have a coherent explanation for why. There's a sheen of simplistic conservationism about the venture (people shouldn't kill tigers!), but the short version is that Marshall thinks big cats are pretty. So he lives with them. In Roar and in real life. Roar's plot isn't interesting at all, but the fact that you're basically watching a crazy man's $17 million cat video is fascinating. What. The fuck. Was this idiot thinking. He'd clearly created a rich backstory for all of his pets ("Robbie is the leader! Togar is the mean one!"), only small pieces of which ever make the successful journey from inside his addled head onto the screen.
Ninety-five percent of Roar appears to be Marshall filming his cats (his huge, dangerous cats) playing, and to make that work as a story ("story"), Marshall's family has to get into a lot of hijinks: They hide from lions in ice boxes. They hide from lions in cabinets. They hide from tigers in water barrels. Honestly, it gets pretty fucking tedious—but it's hard not to be mesmerized by the inherent contradiction of these actors doing the hokiest cornball vaudeville bullshit imaginable in an atmosphere that makes doing so as dangerous as anything Evel Knievel ever did on a Harley.
It seems a bit poetic that Roar started shooting in 1970 but didn't come out until 1981. 1981 seems just far enough removed to realize the folly of 1970—to understand that majestic wild beasts worthy of conservation efforts aren't necessarily cuddly pets you should try to hug and sing Joni Mitchell songs to. One could read Roar as one batshit hippie's extended jackass stunt, but it's equally possible to interpret it as a sort of retrospective on an era. It's easy to see how a person could watch this and conclude that not only misguided animal lovers like Marshall, but anyone espousing a liberal, idealistic worldview was a danger to himself and anyone dumb enough to trust him. Seeing this wild-eyed hair farmer try to convince you that the only defense you need from a 600-pound killing machine is good vibes, even as blood gushes from his scalp? It does kind of make you want to buy a gun and get a crew cut. Not only is Roar a cult curio, I honestly think it helps explain how Ronald Reagan got elected.
Camera assistant Randolph Sellars—who worked on Roar for six months, until director Noel Marshall "was hospitalized with a severe lion bite"—will be in attendance at the screening at the Hollywood Theatre on Saturday, May 2.