Three years ago, I published an article about a photo story I’d found hiding away deep in the LIFE archives. I saw it spread like wildfire on the internet; jaw-dropping photographs of Tippi Hedren and her family living with full-grown lions, including her daughter, a young Melanie Griffith who is the little girl pictured lying in bed with a lion and hanging out by the pool with her head in its mouth.
For 11 years, Tippi Hedren, her husband Noel Marshall (producer of “The Exorcist”) and their family lived with 150 untrained wild animals to produce and star in what became the “most dangerous film ever made” (you can learn the details of their living arrangements here). This week, I heard the news that Roar, a film which tanked at the box office back in 1981, disappeared into movie obscurity and was unavailable for many years, is finally being re-released in theatres this Spring, with Blu-ray/DVD/On Demand availability coming this summer.
So I thought we should take a moment to find out a little more about this film …
It cost $17 million to make and made only $2 million back, dubbed “the most expensive home-movie ever made”. So while the film doesn’t exactly hold any kind of status as a cult classic (yet), there might be an argument however that it deserves recognition for some of the most epic footage ever filmed of lions interacting with humans (both loving and violent), well before the days of computer generated trickery…
Other than some clever editing in parts, no special visual effects were used; lions were really fighting each other and people were really being tackled by lions. The risks and consequences were very real for the cast and crew and unfortunately, the blood was real at times, too. For example, in the following scene where Noel charges in to break up a fight between male lions, one of the lions bites his left hand at the 26 second mark. Noel shakes his hand and briefly looks at it but continues shooting.
Over 70 crew members and actors were injured during the filming. In the third week of shooting, the cinematographer, Jan DeBont was scalped by a lioness. After receiving over 200 stitches, he came back to the set in Soledad Canyon and continued with the film until it was finished. For the creator, writer and director of Roar, Noel Marshall suffered multiple puncture wounds that eventually gave him gangrene because of the bacteria found on lions’ teeth and claws.
One crew member recalled his experience working on Roar for a starting salary of $125 a week:
“The young lioness pinned me against a tree. She stood on her hind legs, while her front paws tightened around my neck. I could smell and feel her hot breath as her powerful jaws opened inches from my face. I was powerless to prevent her from… licking and kissing my face. The lioness didn’t want me for dinner, she was just a “teenager” wanting to play. This was a typical day for me working on a movie called “Roar” in the summer of 1978.”
Roar‘s plot is based on a family who goes to visit their father Hank, (played by Marshall), who lives contentedly with his wild animals. One day his wife and kids (played by Hedren, Griffiths and other siblings) arrive to visit while their father is not at home– but all his animals are, and they’re in for one shocking experience.
Website Dangerous Minds compares the film to a “bizarro-world live-action Disney film! This movie is totally captivating, comical, suspenseful, and terrifying. In short, Roar is nuts.” The site also interviewed Tim League, who secured the rights to re-release Roar, and has become somewhat of an expert on the film and its history.
“Honestly, there really isn’t much of a plot to the movie. The structure was left open because each day they had no idea what the lions were going to do, so much of the film was improvisational,” Tim tells DM. “I like to think of Roar as a sort of Boyhood, where the family expands beyond the mom, dad and children to include an adopted family of more than 130 lions, tigers, leopards, panthers and jaguars.”
Dangerous Minds also quizzes Tim League about Hedren’s famous daughter, Melanie Griffith (both pictured above) and her role in the film…
“There is a scene where Melanie is pinned to the floor while a lion is biting and swatting her. She is screaming for her mom, and Tippi is in turn screaming for John and Jerry. Those were real cries for help. There is another scene where a jar of honey falls off a shelf and covers Tippi’s face, and a panther comes in and licks off the honey. They had never tested this shot before, and Tippi was petrified that instead of a lick, the panther would opt for a bite.”
In the early stages of making Roar Melanie had actually quit production, saying she didn’t want to lose her face to the project. When she later came around and returned to filming, Melanie, then 19 years old at the time, was attacked by a lioness and needed 50 stitches to the face.
In an interview with the Daily Mail in 2014, Tippi later expressed regret at the decision to keep lions in their home, acknowledging that they “were stupid beyond belief.”
Marshall and Hedren had initially created the project after a trip to Africa which prompted them to help communicate the plight of wild animals that were losing their natural habitat and being hunted for trade in fur and ivory. Does Roar get that message across?
By the looks of this clip, not exactly…
Tim League even admits, “The narrative of the film doesn’t always directly drive that home… The overwhelming emotion I get from the film is fear rather than a passion to preserve.”
Then again, perhaps fear is exactly what we need to keep that respect for these animals and remind ourselves just who the king of the jungle really is.
If you’re interested in seeing “Roar”, find the theatrical release information here and I’ll try to remind you when it comes out on Blu-ray/DVD/On Demand this summer.