The Most Dangerous Movie Ever Made

The 1981 film “Roar” stranded its female star among dozens of predators, which turns out not to be unusual for Hollywood

I n the summer after high school, I road-tripped with two friends across the western United States to hunt for mountain lions. We sharpened snapped-off branches with Walmart machetes and tracked paw prints the size of our faces. We wandered deep into fir and spruce and found scat still steaming. Luckily we only found traces (pumas are masterful at avoiding people) because I imagine our confrontation playing out like hornets assaulting a ceiling fan. Why did we pursue carnivores with sticks? Because we’d grazed on Hollywood encounters with wild things, seasoned men wrestling beasts, blade in hand, rising marked. We craved talons raked against chests, body transcendence by experiencing another body, even larger, in our faces. We were lucky enough in our real lives that we could court predators for fun.

I still have this urge, to teleport beyond humanity. My skin isn’t enough, one human life inadequate. And because I’ve possessed predator ardor enough to chase a puma with a sharpened twig, I can imagine it might take to watch my three children run around terrified inside a houseful of untrained lions as I stood by and made a movie of it all.

Roar, directed by Noel Marshall and released in 1981, is widely regarded as the most dangerous film ever made. Upwards of 120 cast and crew members may have suffered injury (though the usual figure cited is 70). Most of them were mauled by a motley cast of predators left uninhibited on set.

The movie follows a wildlife biologist in Kenya, who lives in a two-story house filled with seven species of wild cats. His estranged wife and three children join him, but he arrives tardy at the airport. Missing him, the family buses to the house, and are surprised to find it packed with predators; they are terrorized until the biologist returns. The movie is bookended by Humane Society messages announcing no cats were harmed in the production. No such claim is made about the crew.

The movie is bookended by Humane Society messages announcing no cats were harmed in the production. No such claim is made about the crew.

Describing a film that teeters between terrifying and treacly, one critic summed up Roar as “Walt Disney went insane and shot a snuff version of Swiss Family Robinson.”

There are numerous on-screen depictions of maulings that shipped actors to the ER and many more that swirled behind camera. Movies like Roar not only don’t get made anymore; they are not even imagined. By now we know that a mansion or a set or a world filled with lions will forever be a household of tension.

Noel Marshall was born in the South Side of Chicago, raised in a rough-and-tumble world of Windy City gangs. As the eldest of twelve, he learned herding and protecting at a young age. Marshall later worked as Hollywood agent and producer, his fame germinating from The Exorcist, on which he was executive producer. He was impulsive, attacking each project with an atavistic, leonine ferocity.

His client, then wife, Tippi Hedren, had been a working model and single mother (of Melanie Griffith) until she starred in a diet shake commercial and attracted the appetite of Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock. Hedren signed a five-year contract with Hitch, during which time she made two movies, The Birds and Marnie, that in some ways would set the stage for her to risk her life with lions.

One reason for owning a tiger or bear or panther as a pet, I think, and to a lesser extent a dog, is to bring the wild into civilized lives. Many Americans still imagine nature as a wilderness stockpiled with predators in reality gunned down to almost-extinction long ago. In fact, more predators lie in human civilization: monolithic cancers, corporate poison-makers, the #metoo men in politics and Hollywood. Stocking your home with wild animals is a way of acknowledging this truth: that even supposedly civilized, domestic spaces are crawling with predators.

Stocking your home with wild animals is a way of acknowledging this truth: that even supposedly civilized, domestic spaces are crawling with predators.

After a brief period of civility, Hitchcock began stalking Hedren. He drove by her house to spy from his limo and forbade male actors from touching her. On set, Hitch left baskets of bread and potatoes on Hedren’s doorstep with notes that read “eat me.” He eyeballed her even when he was mid-conversation with cameramen.

For the bedroom scene in The Birds, where Hedren’s character is ambushed by the flock, Hedren arrived for filming and found cartons of live, furious, flapping ravens, gulls, and pigeons. On Hitch’s cue, handlers pitched the squawking animals at Hedren. She fell to the floor, against the wall, and the aviary onslaught followed, pecking at her face. The birds were tied to Hedren so they wouldn’t escape. The scene filmed for five days.

Hitchcock once said, “Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.” Hedren later wrote, “Harassment and stalking were terms that didn’t exist.”

Later, on the set of Marnie, Hitchcock assaulted Hedren in her dressing room. He threatened her career, her stardom, but she fled. They never spoke again, finishing Marnie through intermediaries.

People knew what was going on, even Hitchcock’s wife, Alma. But nobody caged a monster like Hitchcock. In Hollywood beasts worse than lions roamed free.

Nobody caged a monster like Hitchcock. In Hollywood beasts worse than lions roamed free.

For Hedren, Marshall was a way to escape, which she admitted was a “really lame reason to get married.” It wasn’t love, but Marshall served as distraction from Hitch, a quasi-savior. His impulsiveness seemed frank, less calculating; he was a beast of a different order. Hedren once said, “I’d rather work with lions any day than ravens.”

After marrying, Marshall and Hedren visited the Tanzanian Serengeti. This was during the ’60s, when wild felines were being poached by the thousands for muffs and rugs. Dark reports circulated about wild cats being wiped out before the year 2000. Born Free hit theaters, its Academy Award-winning song conquering airwaves. Roar may have been released in 1981, but it is a cub of the decade dripping with a Kumbaya sense of ecological oneness. The ’60s held not an accurate depiction of wild predators but rather a sympathetic response to the misunderstandings that led to mass slaughter.

On a different safari the couple gawked at an abandoned, colonial, flat-roofed-style house flooded with the most massive pride of lions then in Africa. Big cats everywhere: filling the hallways, the balconies, the living room, sunbathing on the roof, peering from windows. Marshall and Hedren did what Hollywood types do; they said, “Let’s make a movie.”

Before even scriptwriting or story-boarding, they called their movie “Lions, Lions, and More Lions.”

Animal trainers informed Hedren and Marshall the movie industry standard required at least two adult trainers per beast, and Roar would come to have over 150 animals on set. One handler suggested raising their own big cats instead. Before 1972’s Endangered Species Act, anyone could mail order a tiger. Word got around Hollywood. Misguided predator parents, who’d witnessed the implosion of their homes, readily donated.

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The first carnivores arrived in 1971 at the Hollywood couple’s Beverly Glenn home, just north of Bel Air in the mountains. The cats, many still cubs, wrestled across the boxy, post-modern house, chewing on $3,000 couches, shredding designer drapes, gnarling bedspreads for tug-of-war.

The cats’ roars caused trouble with the neighbors. At dawn, the lions spilled outside and let sail eight or nine sharp, guttural rumbles. Leonine thunder echoed across the hills. To the first neighbor who called, Hedren convinced her it was a motorcycle.

One male lion escaped through an unlocked door, and Hedren caught the cat in the middle of the street heading towards Beverly Hills. Another day, the next door neighbor looked up from gardening to see four adult lion eyes hunting her over the fence. Finally, a county animal control officer arrived and served a wildcat eviction notice.

When I find myself doubting the Marshall and Hedren’s lucidity, I recall that when I was in high school a three-year-old boy in Houston lost his arm at mid-bicep because an uncle left him alone with his pet tiger. I recall the pet chimpanzee that ate the face and hands of his owner’s friend in 2009. And the Minnesota documentarian who became lunch for her pet tiger in 2006.

I also conjure up my brother’s modest house filled with three Great Danes and a large Lab, something akin to a (tamer) lion-stuffed mansion. The Danes gnaw furniture and drywall, make thunderous growls. They have jaws that can encase my sister-in-law’s torso. They sleep, all four dogs, in bed with husband and wife.

I’ve asked my brother about this, and he says they inherited a dog, were gifted another, rescued a third and a fourth. At a certain point his house and life filled with carnivores. A lion grows from cub just as surely as a life grows from cells in utero, as bad ideas result from noble intentions. No one knew Roar was charging to final form, famous not for cinematography but for a family risking its necks to shoot a movie.

To house the big cats, Marshall and Hedren purchased a ranch north of Los Angeles, eventually owning two jaguars, two elephants, four leopards, four cranes, seven flamingos, nine black panthers, ten pumas, 26 tigers, 71 lions, and a tigon (lion-tiger hybrid). The only animal that Tippi and Noel turned down was a hippo.

The couple built a flat-roof colonial mansion. They morphed the California desert to tropical Tanzania, planting thousands of cottonwoods and Mozambique bushes. Marshall dammed a creek behind the house to create a lake. The film’s composer, Terrence Minogue, moved to the ranch and shipped in a piano to write the score with the roar of big cats around him. He would listen to yowls while he plucked at keys.

Marshall penned a script and convinced British and Japanese investors to fund the movie. Food was an immense expense. Every day predators needed 10 and 25 pounds of meat each so they wouldn’t chew the crew.

To let Hedren’s star power shine, Marshall had her act in the lead role as the mother. For the children, they hired Marshall’s sons and Hedren’s daughter, who were all actors, though Hedren’s daughter Melanie Griffith demurred at first, saying, “I don’t want to come out of this with half a face.”

For the lead, Hedren wanted Jack Nicholson, but neither he nor any actor was willing to work so close to a vortex of teeth. So Marshall cast himself as Hank the biologist and was now lead writer, director, producer, actor, and lion-tamer.

He almost died on the first day of shooting. Wanting to attract more investors with footage, Marshall stirred up a fight among the males. The quarter-ton lions scrapped and tore and circled. Toolbox mouths opened, roars built from the cauldrons of feline stomachs, creating a trail of unnerve down Tippi Hedren’s back. “The loudest, scariest, ugliest phenomena,” she wrote.

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One of the arguments Roar makes is that lions are at heart peaceful and only need the right leadership to soothe them. Believing this, Marshall appointed himself alpha male and dashed in to stop the fight, charging into a whirl of claws. This clip made final cut; watching it feels like watching a man sprint into traffic to halt a pileup. Marshall was knocked into a pond and bitten through the hand, leaving a wound that resembled a volcano of flesh.

Because lion teeth are microbial test tubes, Marshall contracted blood poisoning even at the hospital and was within twelve hours of coma and death. Filming was suspended, as it would be off and on for the next five years.

The most dangerous thing you can do to a predator is take away something it’s claimed for itself. Hedren and Marshall didn’t know it yet, but the cats of Roar owned them. They had to be fed and reckoned with, or they would take what they wanted in blood. They needed constant attention and sapped Marshall and Hedren’s other projects.

It doesn’t seem like the couple predicted this. They skipping into predator rearing and lion movie shooting

I don’t think Noel and Tippi’s predator obsession, which led to their subsequent wild cat collecting, was born solely from the desire to save wild cats. The pair didn’t recognize the felines as dangerous — perhaps because, as Hedren knew well, civilized monsters wear different skins. Hedren and Marshal were so far removed from a jungle existence that the cats seemed like saviors. At the same time, there’s an uncanny unease staring at predators that situates humans within evolutionary origins on an unconscious level. Nothing grips the inner-primate mind like glancing at a creature that in another context or another second will attempt to dine on you. This blood-and-claw fear soothes people in a visceral way, one of the reasons they keep housing wild predators and making movies about them. A part of humanity, I believe, regrets what we’ve done to wild beasts and feels deeply that we should still be prey.

The pair didn’t recognize the felines as dangerous — perhaps because, as Hedren knew well, civilized monsters wear different skins.

After Marshall recovered from his attack, Hedren was scalped by a lioness who lacerated her cranium with its teeth; the sound of grating bone entering her ears from within was, she said, recorded in her memory forever. Later Hedren suffered a leg broken in the vise-clamp of an elephant trunk (also in final cut), pain knocking her unconscious. The wound gave her black gangrene.

The same lioness who attacked Hedren ripped cinematographer Jan de Bont’s scalp from neck to hairline, peeling his head like a grapefruit. De Bont’s assistant director started work that day and also quit that day. Twenty other crew members walked off set en masse.

Hedren’s daughter Melanie Griffith was attacked by a three-year-old lioness who bear-hugged her from behind, two paws on her face, one claw very near her right eye, ripping the skin back. Melanie’s fears of leaving set with half a face manifested. She would later undergo reconstructive surgery.

Hedren’s daughter Melanie Griffith was attacked by a three-year-old lioness who bear-hugged her from behind, two paws on her face.

Marshall’s son John provoked the wrong male, who clamped its jaws around John’s head, teeth digging into his head for 25 minutes. “Every day was life or death,” John would later say.

One elephant gored another. One cheetah jumped a twelve-foot fence. Another lion escaped and was missing for three days. Hedren spent $3,000 on a helicopter and phoned in twenty friends for a search party, pinpointing the cat napping under a bridge.

Marshall allowed curious neighbors to visit, bringing children. One lioness attacked a 9-year-old boy moments after he ogled her powerful legs and steely eyes. Hedren’s book The Cats of Shambala includes a black-and-white photo of this same lion charging the viewfinder. My nerves give way just looking at the picture. This lion stalked that boy with the same laser gaze she gives the camera, cantaloupe-sized paws stirring dust, ears flattened to streamline her body.

I have a child now, and this image brews within me an atavistic sense of dread. Not for what the cat is, but for that blinding swiftness and capability left to roam free around a buffet of people. Hedren and Marshall doted on their predators, even loved them, and wanted to halt mass slaughter. But I don’t think they respected the unknowability inherent in a species that doesn’t speak our languages.

The only cast member to survive Roar without a hospital vacation was Kyalo Mativo, a bald, wiry Santa Monica resident. As a native Kenyan, Mativo had acted in two German films and would later star in the dinosaur flick Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. In Roar, Mativo plays a friend who helps Hank sweep house and journey to the airport. Crew members, in interviews, remark about Mativo’s bravery because unlike Marshall, Mativo understood his peril.

Mativo would disappear from the production when his scenes weren’t filming to get away from the cats. “Where I come from,” Mativo said in an interview, “we don’t come close to animals to cuddle them, to kiss them, to go to bed with them.” In a scene when Mativo (whose character bore the same name) is surrounded by lions in the house, he asks Hank, “What do you think you’re doing, running a country club for lions?”

On-screen, Mativo is a target of Hank’s colonialist white-splaining. Hank grabs Mativo by the shoulder leading him around the compound, pointing out lions, and how they can act with guidance. “It’s just like life,” Hank says to Mativo, as a group of males squirms past him, “you get the gentle and the ferocious.”

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At one point in the movie, reality arrives. Hank is murmuring to Mativo, “Cats got a little excited, that’s all — ” but doesn’t finish because he’s kneecapped by a charging lion. Five female lions then pounce on him. They bowl Marshall over, pawing at his face, clapping Marshall’s head in jaws. Mativo cries, “Are you okay? Crazy!” and then steps away. The cats do look like they’re playing, but the line between play and violence is as thin as a claw mark.

In another scene, Hank and Mativo are bicycling with tigers who won’t leave them alone. Mativo crashes his bike, and the two tigers attack. To escape, Mativo ascends a tree and says to Hank that he’s not leaving. Hank asks Mativo to dangle his shirt like a lure so Hank can sneak away.

Hank pedals towards the airport while Mativo fishes for tigers. From an overhead angle, this shot appears horrifying. A storm of claws and growls swirls around human arms and legs. In the film, Mativo stays in the tree until morning. To me, this is an entire movie in itself, an Open Water or The Edge, but in Roar it is a briefly-noted point of humor. After the camera cuts from Mativo, we see Hank biking into the sunset singing a tune. Mativo’s predicament is an afterthought compared to Marshall’s chirping.

Marshall was as condescending to Mativo as he was to the lions, refusing to consider who they were outside of a dreamscape. Fantasy is Hollywood’s breakfast staple, what peers out between the dark edges of a sleep-like movie theater. Roar is that unique moment when reality intrudes, critiquing dreams.

It’s not wrong, I think, that Tippi and Noel cared about lions; I too adore predators. But I respect them, or try to, and know that the only way we can ever cohabitate is to have separate cells in this prison of human-dominated earth. Marshall, especially, seemed oblivious to this, and his ignorance stands out most when he is monologuing to a native Kenyan about lions.

In Roar’s finished product there is spectacle unlike any film created. I feel palpable terror watching Tippi, Melanie, John, and Jerry flee from the big cats in the mansion, knowing the cast is in actual mortal danger. There is no CGI, no stunts. Pulse-pounding drums and percussion follow Hank’s family as they arrive at the ranch without him and dodge and hide in a house filled with monsters.

The family flees and turns corners while dozens of carnivores chase. The scene rolls like footage from a haunted mansion, harassed innocents thwarting death. The family hides, squirreling away in overturned lockers, wardrobes, barrels. They bolt along the balconies, swim in the pond, ascend ladders, forever running, running, running, which of course is precisely what you shouldn’t do with lions.

In one scene, Melanie falls to the kitchen floor, a lioness burrito-wrapped around her, pawing at thighs, chewing scalp. Hedren, her real-life mother, pulls the lioness away by the shoulders and tail and cries for help with tears in her eyes and a genuine shake in her throat. She glances off camera when she cries, “Please, somebody help!” Melanie utters the safe word “Noel,” but perhaps because it resembled “No” or perhaps because the scene was too good, Marshall let film roll.

When Roar was 80 percent complete a dam upstream from the filming collapsed. A ten-foot-high wall of water hit the compound, dumping thousands of tons of effluent. The house’s first floor filled with mud. The water carried away hundreds of planted trees, along with the production’s editing bay.

Fences and cages collapsed, many of the cats escaping. One was Robbie, the “star” of the film, the gentle giant. Robbie was shot and killed by a Sheriff’s Department Deputy when he growled.

It took the Marshall eight months to rebuild. They bought seven hundred trees to replace those lost. Hedren sold her jewels and a fur coat gifted to her by Hitchcock. It was ironic that a fur coat kept afloat a project bent on undermining the animal trade, doubly ironic that a gift from one predator would be used to feed 150 more.

It was ironic that a fur coat kept afloat a project bent on undermining the animal trade, doubly ironic that a gift from one predator would be used to feed 150 more.

As soon as the set was rebuilt and the countryside dried up, a blaze 250 miles long circled the ranch. The lions were blanketed in smoke and ash. Luckily the set and animals were spared from the fire.

The flood and fire and cat bites and hospital visits have all led at least one critic to call Roar “the most plague-riddled production in Hollywood history.”

The aim of shepherding Roar to completion was like seeing a child off to college. After, for Hedren and Marshall, there were only “bitter arguments, recriminations, and tense, hollow silence,” as Hedren wrote. By 1978, Marshall and Hedren weren’t giving each other Christmas gifts.

Roar cost Hedren and Marshall and their investors $17 million, $80 million in today’s inflation. Because Marshall couldn’t barter with American studios, Roar was only released abroad and made less than $2 million. It was a critical nightmare: voice-overs as bad as any Showa Godzilla film, whiplash-inducing jump cuts, corny dialogue (“Oh, God, look what the cat dragged in!”). It’s not even clear what science Hank is practicing, and the family does not become individuals before they are confused and menaced by a house full of predators.

Marshall and Hedren imagined they knew their role in the lion movie, figured on raising and feeding predators and living alongside them in peace. They may not have used fences, but the producer couple built mental walls, blocking off possibilities: the possibility of the cats attacking the crew; the possibility of losing Robbie, the benevolent patriarch. The cats ignored their boundaries as wild animals will always do.

A male lion is only dominant until he’s pawed aside. Lions move and maneuver and follow the herd. They sometimes attack people. A pride may appear simple and languid from the view of a safari Range Rover but within is a universe that makes sense only to the felines. And humans change too, can grow, can redraw the fantasies that put us to sleep.

In 2015, Drafthouse Films, distribution arm of Alamo Drafthouse, bought Roar’s screening rights. Roar landed in American theaters 25 years after its completion. The film was reborn into a world that would shortly be more concerned with other types of Hollywood predators. Hoarding big cats, living among them without acknowledging their danger, seemed so naive as to be an oddity, the stuff of second-run art film houses. A year later it would be clear that everyone in the movie industry had been doing that all along.

After their divorce Marshall went back to making commercials, and Hedren resided with the animals at the ranch, renaming it Shambala. Hedren founded The Roar Foundation in 1983, a nonprofit providing sanctuary to exotic felines. The purpose of Shambala is so the big cats can “live out their lives in dignity,” according to its website. Over the years, Shambala has rescued hundreds of cats, many abused, from wayward predator enthusiasts, wildcat peddlers, roadside zoos.

Recalling her experiences on Roar, Hedren turned against owning carnivores. She co-authored a bill curtailing the wildcat trade and carried it to her California congressman, who, in a rare celebration of democracy, helped the Captive Wildlife Safety Act become law in 2003.

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Marshall died in 2010 from brain cancer. “Seventeen years of nonstop impulsive chaos at a dead run,” Hedren once described their frenzy.

These days, Hedren, now 88, can be found wandering around Shambala, separated from the big cats by fences. She hosts fundraisers and spends every day walking the footpaths and bridges, spying on hunters. “They’re each so different,” she writes, “each with their own distinct personalities and sounds, as individual as people.” Some of the cats come to the chainlink to lick her hello.

Elsewhere at Shambala, lions head-butt and groom each other. They eat red meat from white buckets. Dawn is the cats’ favorite time as a cool mist wafts over the river where frogs trumpet. Desert orange crests over the chaparral mountains, and Hedren pulls the blinds open to watch. At sunrise, the cats roar, many of them less than twenty feet away from Hedren’s bed. Every morning she awakens to this chorus. The lions call to their littermates, setting each other off, sometimes 20 of them. The house earthquakes. The floors thrum.

There are other residents, a swirl of inky, dive-bombing birds who nip at fingers and send reminders scurrying through toes and echo the past. Shambala sports an eerie and sometimes greedy population of ravens.

They dine on the big cats’ leftovers. But sometimes the ravens get too close, and the lions and tigers swipe at them for sport, bringing one down in a satisfying display of feather confetti. The animals keep each other in check.

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