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In 1966, Columbia Pictures released Born Free, the true story of an African game warden and his wife who raised three orphaned lion cubs. Although two were sent to a zoo, the smallest one, Elsa, was raised to maturity by Joy and George Adamson. Joy taught Elsa how to survive in the wild prior to returning the lion to her natural surroundings. Joy's memoir of the events was published in 1960 and MGM had originally courted the Adamsons for film rights, but as her biography, Joy Adamson: Behind the Mask, explains: "Columbia paid better." The real life husband and wife acting team of Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers portrayed the Adamsons, and James Hill helmed the picture. McKenna and Travers, both popular British stage performers, were passionate about the film and its subjects, so much so that in later years they would found several animal rights groups, culminating in the Born Free Foundation in 1991.
James Hill, best known for documentaries and film shorts - he won an Oscar in the latter category for Giuseppina (1961) - wanted to honor the spirit of the film with careful casting for the animals. No previously trained or circus lions were considered, only untamed ones so as to capture the authenticity of the performances. Over three thousand lions were screened, with only about a dozen making the final cut. No trick photography was used to produce any sequences, and the entire production was shot (not surprisingly) behind thick wire fencing. McKenna and Travers insisted upon performing with the lions up close, and with no doubles to stand in. Remarkably, these risky working conditions resulted in only two mishaps. A camera was smashed in, and McKenna's ankle was broken by an overeager lion - many of her scenes, in fact, were filmed with the actress in a cast. Performing with the wild creatures, however, can be unpredictable and the crew often experienced long waits when the animals missed their "cues." As Hill explained in Adamson's bio, "You just want the lion to sit there between Bill and Virginia for a minute and you could be a week on that." As a result, the shooting schedule ran a grueling forty-two weeks!
George Adamson was officially hired on as the film's technical advisor; Joy, with no official production role but strongly motivated by her love for the lions, often found a way to be at the center of controversy on set. Her interfering nature finally caused an eruption with executive producer Carl Foreman, who declared, "Two of the greatest mistakes of my life have been to get involved with this film and to allow you on location." Indeed, Joy's constant interruptions caused her to be banished from the set; as her biography explains, "The rather pathetic sight of Joy peeping over a distant rock, trying to glimpse the scene being shot, was noticed by the entire crew." Virginia McKenna, however, had no such problems with Joy: "She never tried to interfere or suggest I interpret her differently and she did not seem to begrudge that she was not playing the character herself. That must have been difficult for her."
Born Free has an unusual connection to a very different type of cinematic genre, that of the Bond series of films. Supporting actor Geoffrey Keen appeared in several Bond flicks as the Minister of Defence, and the man who defined Bond musically also scored Born Free. John Barry, musical composer for eleven Bond films, would go on to win Best Score and Song Academy Awards® for his work in Born Free. Together with frequent collaborator Don Black, who wrote the lyrics, they had a top 40 hit with Born Free, sung by Matt Monro. Monro also sang the title song in From Russia with Love (1963), and Black penned the words to the Shirley Bassey hit Diamonds are Forever for the 1971 film.
Born Free was the selection for the Royal Command Performance in 1966 so Joy flew to London in a rush to attend the event. Upon making unreasonable demands for a suitable gown, she finally accepted one that didn't fit the originally intended recipient. Upon arriving at the theatre, she promptly discovered that her dress was identical to that of Queen Elizabeth. Buckingham Palace's comment was, "Her Majesty does not notice what other people are wearing." Born Free became an international hit, and its success helped elevate peoples' awareness and understanding of wildlife preservation. A sequel, Living Free, was released in 1972, and a short-lived television series, Born Free, was to follow two years later. Not everything that followed the film's release, however, was pleasant. In 1971, George Adamson was forced to kill one of the main stars of the film, a lion named Boy, after he fatally mauled one of Adamson's assistants. Joy herself would also meet with an untimely end: In 1980, she was discovered dead near her camp. Although initial reports described the death as a lion attack, the evidence pointed toward foul play. An ex-employee was suspected and convicted of shooting her over a money disagreement. Then, in 1989, George Adamson was murdered at Kampi Ya Simba in Kora by Somali poachers.
Producer: Sam Jaffe, Paul B. Radin
Director: James Hill, Tom McGowan
Screenplay: Joy Adamson (book), Lester Cole
Cinematography: Kenneth Talbot
Film Editing: Don Decon
Music: John Barry
Cast: Virginia McKenna (Joy Adamson), Bill Travers (George Adamson), Geoffrey Keen (Kendall), Peter Lukoye (Nuru), Omar Chambati (Makkede), Bill Godden (Sam).
C-96m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Eleanor Quin