Long before 'Tiger King' there was 'Roar,' the most dangerous movie ever made

Noel Marshall — and lots of lions and tigers — in Roar. (Photo: Alamo Drafthouse)

“Although some scenes appear to show animals being injured, they were never actually hurt,” reads a disclaimer in the opening minute of the 1981 film Roar.

The same cannot be said for humans.

Some 70 people were injured during the making of Noel Marshall’s shocking cult classic, which has been called “the most dangerous movie ever made” and is perhaps most infamous for the reported “mauling” of one of its young stars, Melanie Griffith, endured at the claws of a lion (more on that later).

With the Netflix sensation Tiger King burning up streaming charts and dominating (non-coronavirus-related) pop-culture headlines, Roar is suddenly receiving renewed interest, including a digital rerelease from Alamo Drafthouse beginning Wednesday.

For as stunning as the “anti-masterpiece” — about a mother (Tippi Hedren) and her children (Griffith, along with stepbrothers John Marshall and Jerry Marshall) being stalked by lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, cougars and jaguars as they arrive in Tanzania to visit their wildlife researcher father (Noel Marshall) — is to behold, the film’s fang-filled backstory is even wilder. Shot over five years in the late 1970s, Roar has enough intrigue to fill multiple documentaries — which is probably why there have been multiple documentaries on its production (2004’s The Making of Roar and Animal Planet’s Roar: The Most Dangerous Movie Ever Made). Roar also earned considerable attention in Hedren’s 1988 book, The Cats of Shambala.

Noel Marshall, who first made a name for himself as an executive producer on William Friedkin’s head-spinning horror classic The Exorcist, was bitten through the hand by a lion on the very first day of filming. Doctors feared he might lose his arm, but they were able to save the limb — which endured about 10 more bites during the shoot. His wife, Hedren, best known for her work in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964), was bitten in the head by a lioness known as Cherries, requiring 38 stitches. At another point, her leg was crushed by an elephant. Director of photography Jan de Bont, who would eventually go on to become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand action directors of the ‘90s (Speed, Twister), was bitten in the head by a lion three and a half weeks into production. It took more than 120 stitches to sew his scalp back on. Assistant director Doron Kauper had his throat slashed by a lion. Griffith, the future star of films like Working Girl (1988) and Body Double (1984) who was 19 at the time, was clawed in the face — an injury that required 50 stitches and plastic surgery.

And that’s merely a sampling of the carnage. “It’s amazing no one was killed,” Hedren has said about the film, though she has also disputed the number of people injured.

“The movie wouldn’t be allowed to be made today,” John Marshall, now 66, tells Yahoo Entertainment in an interview promoting the film’s rerelease. Even before his father’s death in 2010 and stepmother Hedren’s and stepsister Griffith's distancing from the film in more recent years, the middle brother had become the Marshall-Hedren-Griffith family’s point man for the movie.

He was also the first family member to be attacked. Roar hadn’t even begun production when John was visiting the Acton, Calif., ranch the showbiz clan had purchased from Steve Martin (not that Steve Martin, but the Working Wildlife animal trainer). A lion named Tonga Ru pinned John and clamped his head on his jaw for 25 minutes. Martin was eventually able to distract the lion as John crept away and dove into a nearby lake. Fifty-six stitches.

“For seven years afterward I had to work with that full-grown male lion and he tried to finish the job every time,” John says. “It was interrupted, and he didn’t like that.”

Tippi Hedren in Roar. (Alamo Drafthouse)

The genesis of Roar dates back to the late 1960s. After Hedren’s working relationship with Alfred Hitchcock soured (Hedren, now 90, accused the filmmaker of sexual assault in 2016), the actress filmed a pair of movies in Africa: Satan’s Harvest (released in 1970) and Mister Kingstreet’s War (1973). She and Noel traveled the continent in between projects and became enamored of the wildlife. When on a Mozambique safari they witnessed an abandoned game warden’s house being overrun by lions driven there by poachers, the idea for the film was born.

Over Sunday dinner back at their home in Sherman Oaks in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, the couple pitched the family-affair filmmaking concept to their children and stepchildren. John, Jerry and Melanie were in. John’s older brother, Joel, was not, though he would eventually work behind the scenes as production designer and art director.

Related Video: 5 Things You Should Know About Netflix’s “Tiger King”

Within weeks, the family began “interviewing” Hollywood lions and their trainers. The first one they encountered was celebrity animal actor Clarence from the fluffy 1967 movie comedy Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion and its TV spinoff, Daktari. But they were repeatedly told that neither the professional animals nor their trainers would work well with others if they were looking for creatures en masse. So the family began buying young lions from zoos, from circuses, from animal control officers, from Joe Exotic types, from families who thought it would be a good idea to have big cats as pets until a child got bitten. The Marshalls raised them in their suburban Sherman Oaks home before transporting them via station wagon to the Acton ranch.

A famous 1971 Life magazine spread displayed astonishing photos from the Marshall-Hedren home, though as John says now, the 400-pound lion in the pool was not actually theirs. “At the time, our biggest one was probably about 200 pounds.” Only 200 pounds.

When John came home from summer vacation one year, Noel had adopted two tiger cubs. “I went, ‘Dad, these are cuter than s***. But, uh, there aren’t any tigers in Africa.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, no, I’m going to write it into the script.’ And to think that the voice of reason was a 15-year-old. So then all of the sudden we had a bunch of tigers.” At the height of Roar’s shoot, the family had collected in the neighborhood of 150 big cats: 30 tigers, 10 leopards, a couple of cheetahs, a couple of jaguars and the rest lions. Not to mention other exotic animals. John, who eventually became in charge of the ranch, would deal ostriches for zebras or zebras for elephants or elephants for whatever they needed for the next scene. At one point he was practically stampeded by zebras. “It was trial and error because we didn’t know what we were doing.”

Tippi Hedren and John Marshall. (Barry King/WireImage)

Still, preproduction dragged on because of financing woes. “Whenever we’d get money it’d be to pay back bills. We had to pay for lions and tigers,” John says. “So all the Exorcist money would go to that.”

The film finally went into production at the end of September 1976. John was 22, and Jerry and Melanie — born on the same day to different mothers and different fathers, were 19. But the film would start without Griffith. The up-and-coming actress had already appeared in films like The Harrad Experiment (1973) and Night Moves (1975) and had a change of heart. Noel replaced her with her best friend, Patsy Ned, who was often over at their house and had a level of comfort with the big cats. When the film broke for a hiatus over the holidays in December, Griffith told Noel she wanted back in, and he obliged. As John points out, you can still see Ned in certain scenes if you work the freeze-frame button.

The production of Roar was originally slated to take nine months. It ended up lasting five years, with a budget ballooning upwards of $17 million. Roar not only became known as “the most dangerous” film ever made, but earned the nickname “the most expensive home movie ever made.” Says John: “There didn’t seem to be a sense of urgency to ever get it done. Dad would film a scene for a week if he thought it could be better in some way.”

There was also the fear factor — and the endless stitches. “We were careful,” John says. “But we weren’t afraid for our lives. We knew there was a good chance that we’d get bitten a couple times.”

The constant attacks horrified crew members. John remembers one day when “15 or 18 crew guys quit on the same day. The electric and grip department and a couple camera guys got together and they said, ‘Forget it. This is insane.’” Still, he was amazed when de Bont returned to the set after spending two weeks in the hospital with a head injury. The cinematographer stayed with the project through all five years.

The family had a complicated relationship with Noel, who functioned like a tortured auteur attempting to complete his magnum opus — often with little regard for the safety of his wife, sons and stepdaughter. Hedren and Griffith would frequently try to get in scenes with John because he was the only one who would stop a shot if it became too treacherous. “I got yelled at numerous times by [Noel],” he says. “He hit me once in front of the whole crew. But I would ruin a shot if I thought someone was going to get bitten, or if I was going to get bitten.”

John does take exception to the characterization of the major attack on Griffith, which was not used in the final cut, as a “mauling.” It’s too strong a word, he says. “What happened to Melanie is she got clawed. But it was kind of embarrassing because it was only like a 5-month-old [lion], maybe. … A little cub jumped up from behind Melanie and he clawed her above and below the eye pretty close. And their claws are sharp when they’re young.” He also disputes the reports that she had “reconstructive surgery” on her face. “We did send her to a plastic surgeon because the rule was if anybody got any bites or claws in their face, or anything that would show, then you go to a plastic surgeon and get it done right.”

In another scene that is in the film, Griffith is seen lying on the floor when a lion straddles her, clamps down on her head and drags her by her hair. Noel had unwisely made the actors’ safe word his own first name, so it was practically indistinguishable when she begins yelling “No!” and then “Noel!” The director “doesn’t do f***ing anything” when she yells it, John recalls. “So I stepped in and I got yelled at for that too.”

Noel also insisted that Tonga Ru, the lion that had pinned John years before cameras started rolling, be in the same shot with the son he stalked to ratchet up tension. “It was actually a good dynamic, although dangerous. I mean, any parent who would put his children through what…,” John says before cutting himself off.

There were reasons why the family members knew they couldn’t quit, though. And they mostly dealt in dollars and cents. “After the first year, even though you wanted to quit, you knew that the family had everything invested in it,” John says. “You couldn’t replace yourself.” The family had already sold numerous properties to keep the project afloat.

Not only were there literally lion bites galore, the production was generally snakebitten as a whole. In February 1978, a flood destroyed the set and four members of the sound team had to be rescued. Three lions, including Robbie — the film’s ruler of the pack — were shot and killed by law enforcement agents after escaping the property. A bushfire neared the set in 1979, which resulted in Noel getting clawed by a jaguar as he tried to protect the animals. According to Vice, during production it was suggested that due to Noel’s involvement, Roar was being struck by “the curse of The Exorcist,” the fable attached to deaths and mishaps surrounding the Friedkin film he had produced. All told, Roar took 11 years to complete from conceptualization to release. It reportedly only earned $2 million, though Alamo Drafthouse rereleased the film in 2015.

“This film should have never been done,” John admits. “It was insane, and I don’t miss a moment of it.”

Marshall and Hedren divorced within a year of the film’s release. “I could kind of tell that they were just staying together because they knew they had to finish it,” John says. “They were going to walk away with nothing? They’d have half a film.” To John's knowledge, his father and Griffith never spoke again after completing publicity on the film.

Among its various descriptions over the years, Roar has been called a family film, an adventure film, a drama, a comedy even and an animal rights manifesto. But watch this movie in 2020 knowing what the cast endured — the threat of being attacked or bitten or even mauled at any moment — and it feels like pure breathless horror. John realized as much when he was invited to a film festival called Motel/X in Portugal in 2015, only to later discover after looking up at the marquee that it was the Lisbon International Horror Film Festival.

Tiger King is not a horror series, and John Marshall, who has since gone on to become a director and producer (“Roar was enough to turn you off of acting forever”) and an inventor of currently in-demand sterilization technology, is content not to be too connected to the seedy Netflix docuseries character. Whereas the Marshall family has remained animal rights activists throughout the years, and Hedren still oversees (and lives on) the 80-acre Shambala Preserve for lions and tigers that the family ranch transformed into, John does not see the eccentric, imprisoned polygamist Joe Exotic and himself as cut from the same cloth.  

“I don’t believe for a second that that guy cared for his animals much,” says John, who reluctantly tuned in for two episodes and had trouble finishing both. “That’s just what I envisioned of him — he didn’t really seem to give a s*** about the animals.”

Roar is now streaming as part of Alamo Drafthouse’s Alamo-at-Home series.

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