A pre-teen when Joy Adamson's Born Free was first published and always fascinated with wildlife, I was definitely a target audience for this vivid description of African wildlife and personal narrative about lions. I also eagerly read her follow-up book, Living Free, and highly anticipated the film version of the original despite being a more sophisticated high school graduate by its 1966 release date. Trying to figure how filmmakers could possibly capture the same things on film that Adamson depicts continues to be as mind boggling today as it was to the starry eyed nature lover I was in my youth.
Watching Born Free again on DVD brings back nostalgic feelings, so I can hardly be totally objective, but I'm convinced that it continues to hold up and is entertaining family fare. Filmed in Kenya's game reserves before poachers had decimated its elephants and rhinos, the richness of wildlife is also refreshing. But this is far more than a Disney wildlife adventure that takes lots of raw footage and narrates a story in voiceover—much is scripted to match the incidents in Adamson's book.
Film and book take their title from Joy's determination to return a lion to the wild after she had grown up knowing human parenting. George Adamson (Bill Travers) shoots a man-eating lion and his attacking mate, leaving three cub orphans. The largest is the bully, the medium sized is the clown, and the runt of the litter is the most curious, intelligent, and bravest. Of course the smallest is Joy's (played properly British by Virginia McKenna) favorite, and she names her Elsa. The film abbreviates the antics of the young cubs, yet illustrates enough to establish the attachment that forms between Joy and Elsa.
The crux of the story begins to evolve when the cubs are no longer small and cuddly, but are prime age for zoos. Since Elsa has established herself in the starring role, it's no huge surprise that she remain with the Adamson's, but her playfulness in causing a destructive elephant stampede makes it imperative that they do something with her. All logic dictates that Elsa ship off to a zoo, but Joy makes an impassioned plea to give her a chance to return to the wild, insisting that they can train her to kill her own game and fend for herself within a lion pride.
As schmaltzy as this all seems, the plot is based on a true-life story, and the film touches the right heartstrings. That Joy could become so attached to Elsa is foreshadowed with an earlier attachment to a rock hyrax named Pati, and her determination to practice "tough love" after being such a softie to force Elsa into survival training are believable. Parents will relate to the scene where Joy compares leaving Elsa out overnight near a male lion to a teenage daughter's first date, and of course the emotional attachment, separation anxiety, and triumphal pride will predictably cause a few eyes to well up.
The human actors, including some expert comic relief by balding veteran British character actor Geoffrey Keen, takes a back seat to the lion actors. Nature based films like this must rely on significant amounts of voiceover, but it never becomes irritating here. Elsa remains the star of the show. Well that and John Barry's song and score, which deservedly won the Oscar that year—this would rank as Barry's most memorable film score if he hadn't created so many of the James Bond themes.
Born Free remains an enjoyable, well-paced 135 minute affair, emotionally satisfying for the whole family, as long as you aren't looking for high art or realism. Decidedly romantic, Africa never looked this good, and this is far removed from the environmentally threatened, AIDS plagued Kenya you'll find today. Even the blood is properly sanitized for 1960's taste—the opening contains a lion attack and human kill, but all you'll see onscreen will be some stylized bright red paint in the river. Although the whole of the Adamson's and Elsa's story could take the form of tragedy, the time frame here remains true to life and provides worthwhile entertainment that crosses generations. It's more economical than an African safari, but rekindles interest in visiting its game preserves while wild elephants and lions still roam.
DVD Note: One convenient feature on the first screen is a choice of full screen or widescreen, but besides basic features (closed captions/subtitles and scene selection) this remains a bare bones DVD. Although it's great to have a clear definitive print now available, background information and insider anecdotes about how the filmmakers got the lions to act so professionally will remain hard to find.