Review: ‘Born Free’

"Born Free" is a heart-warming story of a British couple in Africa who, at the maturity of their pet lioness, educate the beast to survive in the bush.

“Born Free” is a heart-warming story of a British couple in Africa who, at the maturity of their pet lioness, educate the beast to survive in the bush. Executive producer Carl Foreman and producers Sam Jaffee and Paul Radin have executed an excellent adaptation of Joy Adamson’s books which were as much photos as text with restraint, loving care, and solid emotional appeal that seldom becomes banal. The Columbia release is definitely not slanted towards juves, although latter will understand it. This outstanding artistic achievement will, however, require extremely sensitive selling techniques if full b.o. potential is to be realized since many adults will tend to shy away from sentimentality implications.

Animal pix seem to divide into two classes, Disney-type product which goes far at the b.o. on the combined strength of treatment, kid draw and the Disney name, and the remainder, usually overlycute fluff aimed at infants, and, at which, parental attendance is simply baby-sitting. “Born Free,” however, fits into neither. Film buffs will have to go back to “Sequoia” to find a comparable film. While possessing the charm of Disney pix, it may suffer commercially from lack of the Disney endorsement.

Gerald L. C. Copley has done a first rate adaptation of the true story of Joy Adamson, who with hubby George involuntarily domesticated several pet lions. They kept one, Elsa, until she was fully grown and then, to save her from government-ordered zoo captivity, trained her to survive as a wild animal. The apparently childless couple are portrayed in top form by real-life married couple Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers.

The wife’s maternal affection for the lioness, and all pets, is handled by Miss McKenna and director James Hill with excellent taste and restraint. Man’s affinity for pets is too basic in his nature to be cluttered up with the antiseptic verbiage of contemporary head-shrinking. Only occasionally do the two leads display a small degree of reservation towards Elsa.

Hill, known primarily for documentaries although bearing other feature credits, has succeeded admirably in effecting a balance of audience interest in the humans. Travers, also starred above title after Miss McKenna, is excellent. He’s best known in the U.S. for “wee Geordie.” Pair’s interactions cover the spectrum, from incidental humor to occasional strife, of genuine married love.

Geoffrey Keen is excellent as the friendly government commissioner who finally convinces them the lioness should be sent to a zoo or set free. Keen gives the role much depth via the humor engendered from his natural aversion to the lioness, balanced by his British reserve. Other players render fine support, specially Peter Lukoye as Elsa’s “nursemaid.”

Against the backdrop of Kenya, photographed on the spot by Kenneth Talbot’s perceptive Technicolor-Panavision camera, the drama unfolds smoothly and logically, not showing the extremely-long shooting period needed. Don Deacon edited to an adroit 95 minutes. Peter Whitehead’s animal supervision is outstanding, with George Adamson’s technical advice a big assist.They interweave the lion footage with that of hundreds of wild beasts to underscore the point the couple’s lioness is a single exception to the rule of nature. There’s a hilarious bit where the Adamsons try to play matchmaker with Elsa willing but the male too tired.

Foreman’s production notes credit Jaffe and Radin with the idea for the film. Along with remarkable absence of the maudlin, there is an effectively-underplayed lesson in the triumph of human patience and courage, told with appropriate amounts of audio-visual humor. At the same time, there is no compromising of the fact that bush animals are, by nature, potentially dangerous.

John Barry’s score adds solid emphasis and atmosphere. Post-production work was done at England’s Shepperton Studios, and the sound team, Claude Hitchcock and Robert Jones and sound editor Chris Greenham, rates a special nod for achievement. They have created (and recreated) a live, exterior feel.

Film was shown in London earlier this month as a Royal Command Performance, a prestige factor.

1966: Best Song (‘Born Free’), Original Score


Born Free



Columbia Pictures release of an Open Road/High Road co-production, executive producer, Carl Foreman, produced by Sam Jaffe and Paul Radin. Directed by James Hill. Screenplay, Gerald L.C. Copley, based on the books by Joy Adamson.


Camera (Technicolor), Kenneth Talbot; Editor, Don Deacon; Music, John Barry; technical advisor, George Adamson; asst. director, William P. Cartlidge. Reviewed at Columbia Studios, March 10, '66. Widescreen. Available on VHS, DVD. Original review text from 1966. Running time: 95 MIN.


Joy Adamson - Virginia McKenna George Adamson - Bill Travers Kendall - Geoffrey Keen Nuru - Peter Lukoye Makkede - Omar Chambati Sam - Bill Godden Baker - Bryan Epsom Ken - Robert Cheetham James - Robert Young Watson - Geoffrey Best Indian Doctor - Surya Patel
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