Movies We Like
Having a realistic, almost The Battle of Algiers docudrama feel helps give Born Free an even bigger heart. The line between real life and film is pushed in so many ways; though as a child seeing this film, I didn’t quite know what a documentary was, that’s what Born Free almost appeared to be. The film is based on the best-selling book by Joy Adamson about her and her husband’s experience raising a lion named Elsa from cub to full-grown. Real life married acting couple Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers play Joy and her husband George, adding to the realism. But what really separates the film from one of those Disney pseudo nature docs is its nice score by John Barry with that moving theme song.
The Adamsons are a naturalist couple living in the Kenyan bush - he’s a game warden and she’s an artist/writer and a big animal lover. After a couple of lions in the jungle behave like lions, per his job, he goes and casually shoots them. But then he is stuck with their three little cubs, and he and Joy bottle-feed and hand raise them. She really takes a shine to the runt of the trio whom she names Elsa. Under pressure from their boss, Kendal (Geoffrey Keen), eventually the other two are shipped off to a zoo while Elsa stays behind to become one of the family. As she reached her full grown state, Joy makes a bold choice, instead of sending her to a zoo they release her back into the wild, because after all she was born free and deserves to live free. The dilemma though is, like any wild animal raised by humans, she is too tame and doesn’t have the skills to live in the wild. The Adamsons must teach Elsa to be a wild lion, all leading to a gut-wrenching conclusion as the Adamsons will eventually have to say goodbye to their giant pet cat.
Born Free was adapted into its clean script nicely by blacklisted screenwriter Lester Cole, using the alias Gerald L.C. Copley. Director James Hill made his name in British television (The Avengers, The Saint) and other than Born Free didn’t make any features that broke through with the public. (Though his filmography does have a title from 1970 that sounds intriguing called The Man From O.R.G.Y. - it sounds a long way from Elsa and the Adamsons.) For his work John Barry won two Oscars, one for the score and one for the title song that became a big hit as sung by Matt Monro and later Andy Williams. For any early James Bond aficionado it’s interesting how much the suspenseful moments in the score sound similar to the music Barry created for that franchise.
Born Free would become a mini franchise; it would be followed by an unsuccessful sequel, Living Free, (based on another book about Elsa by Adamson). There would also be a short lived television series and a number of films, including To Walk With Lions which had Richard Harris playing George as an old man, still hanging out with lions.
There is this short documentary, Christian The Lion, that has become a minor Internet sensation. Two groovy dudes in the '60s bought a lion in swinging London and eventually had to have it released in the wilds of Africa. Year later they come looking for him and the lion totally remembers them. It’s a great reunion. It also has a connection to Born Free. Thespians McKenna and Travers met the blokes and their lion, Christian, in London, they hooked the guys up with the Adamsons who then went about prepping the lion to live on its own in the jungle. Again pre-reality television, the line between real and made-up gets thin - a real real-life couple that play a real couple bring in the real couple.
Both Christian The Lion and Born Free movingly highlight the relationship people can have with animals, even animals meant to be wild. The separation from them is taxing, as is the decision that Joy made to return Elsa to the wild, it can be dangerous for the wild animal if they can’t adapt to their new surroundings. Since the film and the book Born Free struck such a chord, returning animals to their natural world has become the most respected practice for animal rescuers, instead of sending them to a zoo where they will be dependent on humans for the rest of their existence. It might be the kindest thing any human could do for an animal. Born Free is a wonderful, heart-warming film, a tribute to the deep affection between humans and a lion.
Born Free won two Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Original Song (John Barry).