“Now when we fight, we fight for each other, for our freedom, for our future, and for those who have come before us. This is our home, and we are people who will not be put down. We will not be broken. And we will never be silenced.”
Many stories have been written about valiant fighters, heroes of every age. Nations are being born by those who believe, even today. There have been many shows about recent wars and frontier explorers, and even some about the distant future and noble causes. But it’s not often that an American television show chooses 400 AD as its era, and the ancient tribal lands of Ireland as its setting. Even in that place and time, there were great stories about change, tradition, and faith. Many should hear these stories. Many should hear about the Roar.
Roar told of the battle to unite the disparate Celtic forces to fight against the advancing Roman Empire. The effort is led by Conor (Heath Ledger), a young clan chieftain whose family was murdered by a rival Irish King in league with the Romans. He’s aided by the family Champion Fergus (John Saint Ryan) who pledges his life to protect Conor, involving him reluctantly in bringing together the Irish people to fight back the foreign foe. They try to preserve Irish heritage and beliefs, protecting all who would be enslaved by the Romans.
One of those slaves is Caitlin (Vera Farmiga), who escaped from her captors and is now under the protection of Conor. She’s an excellent archer and skillful warrior, but hides her ultimate allegiance. She fights most readily for the cause, but she’s not completely joined with her adopted people and all their beliefs. She has her own voice to add.
Also involved with this group is Tully (Alonzo Greer), a young magician. Tully is clever and inquisitive, but also still very young and impulsive. As a magician, he was very good at creating distractions and misdirection, allowing others in the group to attack or retreat when necessary (and he’s also very skillful with a whip, useful in keeping swordsmen at bay). Tully had been sent along with Conor by the mystical wizard Galen, who had been a mentor to Conor’s father and believed that the young man could help fulfill Conor’s ultimate destiny. Galen knew what Conor was capable of, if Conor could only understand….
“It’s time to forget your own selfish need for revenge. You were born to a greater purpose. Listen… Listen with your heart. Remember all we are and all that’s come before…. And hear the Roar. (…) It’s the voice that echoes in every living thing… the power that binds us together. It can give you a strength and clarity like you’ve never known. Your father heard it… it was his dream to unite our people… but it wasn’t his destiny.”
–Galen, introducing the concept of the “Roar” to Conor
The quick and dirty explanation for the concept of the “Roar” to modern audiences might be the dark ages history version of “The Force” from the Star Wars movies, but it’s much more than that. It involves not only nature and life force, but faith (of many kinds), mysticism, destiny, fate, and honor, all combined in ways that are lost to those whose only truths are science and more “modern” technology, even in 400 AD. Seeped in the traditions of Druidic and Celtic culture, Conor and his band fought to preserve that history in the face of the “future” and what could be lost to it, while joining their own voices to shape their own lives. The Romans thought of themselves as bringing knowledge and reason to the savages, but forgot, in their haste to control them, that the Irish had their own culture, their own ways, their own destiny. Reason for one is not always sufficient reason for another.
Power is the only reason needed for the resident Roman, Queen Diana (Lisa Zane), who’d entered a political marriage with the murderer of Conor’s family, then killed said King to usurp his throne. She too wants to unite the Irish tribes, but under her rule in Rome’s Empire, earning her a ticket back to Rome and “civilization”. Usually on opposing sides, she and Conor sometimes end up working together against outside foes threatening both Conor’s noble motives and Diana’s more selfish ones. But Diana is deaf to almost all voices but her own.
The only voice Diana will listen to is a “sorcerer” named Longinus (Sebastian Roché). Longinus was a Roman Centurion who has been cursed with immortality as punishment for his actions 400 years ago. He was the tragic soldier who, in what he thought was an act of mercy, put a spear through the body of Christ on the cross. Longinus cannot have the relief of death until he again finds his weapon, known as the “Spear of Destiny”. He can see visions of the future and has some magical abilities, but he cares not for the fight of Conor nor Diana, only that they can lead him closer to what he seeks. Diana will gladly use Longinus’ knowledge and abilities to further her own aims as well, but there is likely at least some feeling for each other, no matter how twisted their motives have become.
You can see how magic and spirituality are bound deeply into the mythos and mystique of Roar. Very early Christianity is displayed side-by-side with Druidic teachings, and the mysticism of both is touched on in unique ways. Neither is shown to be superior to the other, but that was true of the world of 400 AD, and the changes Ireland, Rome, and many other places were going through at the time. While not a documentary by any means, Roar treated all ideas as valid, all voices as part of the tapestry, as it should. Religion didn’t exist for these characters so much as faith did, the triumph of personal beliefs over institutionalized dogma. The revelation of Caitlin’s Christian faith combined with her fight for the Celtic ways of independence showed that both could co-exist, and that humanity’s beliefs were for individuals to follow and keep.
Both Christianity and Celtic Druidism were shown as powerful entities, capable of miracles and wonders. The essential basis for using the unexplained in any show (or overly advanced techno-babble in a science-fiction show) is that the mysterious and magical MUST have rules that are consistent and understandable to the audience, or they feel cheated in the storytelling. Admittedly, Roar didn’t last long enough to clearly delineate the rules for its use of miracles and magic, but it’s uncertain if the show was allowed to have consistent rules in the first place.
“As the weeks went by, creative differences erupted between our showrunners, the studio and the network (as they often do). As writers, we felt pulled in every direction. The mandates changed each week. The scripts suffered as their tone had to repeatedly be altered to fit the whims of our multiple masters. One week the show was very grounded in reality. The next it had special effects. One week it had magic. The week after magic was outlawed. It drove us nuts.”
—Roar Writer and Co-Producer Lawrence Meyers
Even the central concept of the “Roar” itself was affected. The closest the show ever got to nailing it down in the series was Galen’s quote above, found in the pilot episode. FOX couldn’t make up its mind what kind of show Roar was supposed to be, whether it was a take-off on Excalibur, Braveheart, or Robin Hood. (Of course, it wasn’t really designed to be ANY of these, but tell that to network executives who’d rather have an easily familiar “handle” on concepts.) When it was good (which was much of the time), it was good despite of the lack of direction coming from the “suits” and due to the commitment of those directly involved in making the show. In many ways, it was like the actors and crew really were the Irish clans, uniting to fight off the invading Network Romans who believed they were “helping” the poor “barbarians”.
The series was filmed in Australia (Ledger’s native country), giving it a tremendously different look from most American network fare, and the distance might have insulated those directly involved in the making of Roar from some of the network interference. Still, they had to band together and unite (in more ways than one) in their struggle to make Roar a worthwhile endeavor.
“I’m not a king, and I don’t want to be. My training in combat is limited, and I don’t pretend to be a tactician. But if our fight is for this land, then I have the will. And I would be honored to lead you in battle.”
–Conor to his fellow warriors
The group literally fought through many hardships to make the show. John Saint Ryan was injured during a scuffle with some drunken ruffians outside an Australian bar, showing up at filming with a couple of significant cuts on his face. The make-up department left them there, giving his on-screen appearance as Fergus a more battle-scarred, weathered look. Vera Farmiga suffered appendicitis during the same episode and was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, but was back on the set filming three days after the procedure. But like on Roar, not everything was about battles.
The cast became so close that it created two serious personal relationships along the way. Heath Ledger ended up dating his onscreen “nemesis” Lisa Zane for a time. When the series was canceled and Zane returned to Los Angeles, Ledger followed and began his American film career. Two other “opposing” actors, Vera Farmiga and Sebastian Roché, eloped after meeting on the set of Roar. Their marriage lasted seven years before it ended, but these relationships show the bond of the actors far away from the traditional Hollywood scene. Ledger often wore a leather cuff (seen in some of his other roles) given to him and other cast members as gifts by Farmiga.
Roar did receive one Emmy nomination that year for another unique voice, the fantastic Celtic music score, which gave the show even more of a mysterious magical feel. (It helps when you feature the beautiful music of artist Lorenna McKennitt!) Of course, considering the show was created by Shaun Cassidy and Ron Koslow, mysterious and magical were not surprises. Cassidy, having long left his teen pop music career behind, was the creator of the darkly imaginative American Gothic, which was also premised on themes of religion and mystical occurrences. Koslow had previously created Beauty and the Beast for television, developing a complete underground society and fantasy rooted in reality. Both previous shows featured out-of-the-ordinary stories about different forces encroaching upon the worlds their characters inhabited and protected, and in this case Roar was right at home.
“This show, I find it’s based on passion. Like when they fight, it’s not unnecessary fighting, they’re fighting for a reason. They’re fighting for land, love, for hope. And any hope is good hope, and that’s what Conor always got in the back of his mind. I think that will stand out against a lot of other shows.”
Ultimately, Roar lasted only eight episodes (out of thirteen filmed) on FOX before losing the ratings battle. It was an uphill fight to begin with, as a summer series on Monday nights in a season that FOX only landed one series in the Top 50 (that being The X-Files on Sunday nights). So, no successful shows to pair it with, and no promotional outlets to advertise the show on, meant almost no one even found Roar in the first place. If they never discovered the series, viewers in our modern world wouldn’t know how to discover the force of life and nature known as the “Roar”. After all, it’s all around us, if you just learn how to listen….
HEATH LEDGER (Conor) quickly became a movie star in America after Roar, landing heart-throb parts in 10 Things I Hate About You, A Knight’s Tale, and The Brothers Grimm. Landmark dramatic parts followed with Monster’s Ball and Brokeback Mountain, and he was awarded a posthumous Oscar for his riveting performance as the Joker in The Dark Night. An actor who truly cared about his craft, he will be most sorely missed.
JOHN SAINT RYAN (Fergus) has had a career in multiple venues, having first been a Black-Belt martial artist who was used in action films for his fighting abilities. This led to acting, primarily in his native England, until a movie deal with Cannon Films brought him to America for a series of modest-budget features. After Roar, his stunt abilities led him to the world of horses, where he became a champion rider and trainer, winning major competitions around the world.
VERA FARMIGA (Caitlin) has also become a movie star, after first training in TV series like UC: Undercover and Touching Evil. Her film career included major roles in The Departed (for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe) and Up in the Air (for which she was nominated for an Oscar). She has a unique audition style, preferring to make “mini-movies” instead of simply reading for parts, allowing her to more fully develop a character and make a greater impression on prospective directors, an approach which has obviously worked for her.
ALONSO GREER (Tully) happened to be in the right place at the right time for Roar, as he’s primarily been a “behind-the-scenes” person for most of his career. As a production assistant, he performed duties on Addams Family Values and Sister Act, but his unique collection of talents (including the use of a bullwhip) earned him a speaking part on Roar, his only major acting credit. (I should have such luck, being a neophyte actor alongside future Oscar nominees….)
LISA ZANE (Queen Diana) showed up previously on this website for her role in Profit, playing a good person in a series that was all about the bad one! She was featured in a different “otherworldly” series, Dinotopia, and has done voices for the animated Biker Mice from Mars (which makes for one heck of an eclectic career path). In addition, she has a cabaret singing career, and was recently elected into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
SEBASTIAN ROCHÉ (Longinus) fluently speaks six languages, many of which he has used in his acting career. He went from the past in Roar to the future as a regular on Odyssey 5, and later ended up in the present as a three-year regular on General Hospital. Most recently, he has been a recurring character on the Fox series Fringe, and will next be seen in Steven Spielberg’s long anticipated movie The Adventures of Tintin.
Roar was released on DVD in 2006, and although there are no extras, all episodes (including the unaired ones) are included. There were two original novels released based on the series, but it seems as if the second (Roar: The Cauldron) was a previously written “Celtic magic” novel with the Conor character shoehorned in as the protagonist, as it has little to do with the show mythology or the other characters. Some of the episodes are available for streaming on Netfilx (including a few of the unaired eps) and there are numerous websites dedicated to Heath Ledger featuring sections on his Roar experiences.
“The one thing that I think about quite often is the “Roar” that we’re trying to show in Roar. I think it’s something that everyone could use in everyday life. It’s this inner strength that everyone can find, that we can find, that Conor finds. It’s this energy from the ground, and from that energy it clears his head and lets him think straight. And I think hopefully people will, from this show, sit down and relax their minds and find their own inner strengths to not take the easy route out, and to take everything head on, and hopefully that will shine.”
The cast and crew of Roar learned exactly what the mysterious “Roar” of ancient legend was about, and their faith in it drew them together in magical ways to create a show unlike any other before or since. When all parts of our world are respected, joined together, and even cherished, then there’s no limit to what we can achieve, individually and collectively. In our modern world, it’s far too easy to forget that there is an essential truth to humanity, faith in our world and ourselves, and a simplicity of life and nature that mankind cannot hope to replace with mechanical invention and aspirations of power over others.
Advancement is good, as are the tools of civilization we invent… but people who use those tools and the civilization we create with them must always respect each and every one of us who inhabit our world. Because the true voice of nature and humanity can never be silenced. Together, our own “Roar” can be almost deafening, and yet also defining to those who dare to listen. Be one of those people, hear us all together, and lend your own voice to the “Roar”.
8 aired episodes — 5 unaired episodes (later shown on Sci-Fi Channel). All available on DVD.
First aired episode: July 14, 1997
Last aired episode: September 1, 1997
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? Monday nights at 9/8 Central, with little promotion and less chance. A show about history turned into history.
Comments and suggestions encouraged and appreciated, as always.