Now divorced, Robert and Christine are still bound by 11-year-old Tina (Pamela Franklin). Christine worries that growing up in the remote wilds of Africa has had a detrimental effect on Tina, who has taken to roaming the African plains with only her beloved lion companion King (Zamba the Lion) by her side. Tina has so insinuated herself into the life and rituals of Africa, she has even caught the eye of the local village chief's far older son, who perceives the little girl as a potential wife.
Yet prying Tina away from the lure of Africa is not a simple matter. In addition to the total freedom she enjoys, Tina has developed a close, simpatico relationship with Christine's new husband John Bullit (Trevor Howard). A legendary local hunter revered by the black tribesman, John is as enmeshed in African life as Tina. He has become the father Tina lost when Robert returned to America. A bitter, complex rivalry develops between Robert and John.
The only creatures more ferocious and fearful than the lions and stampeding elephants in The Lion are Robert and John who wage an intense battle for Tina. Will she choose Robert's life of comfort and privilege? Or John's with his deep connection to the wild and the creatures who dwell there? At the same time, the men are also campaigning for Christine. Upon his return to Kenya, Robert finds that he is still in love with his ex-wife. And as with Tina, John is not going to let Christine go without a fight.
This Western melodrama unfolds as Christine and John's African neighbors contend with their own changing of the guard. As the village chief weakens and nears death from a lion bite he suffered years before, his teenage son prepares to take his place. But when Robert interferes in the tribal rites of burial, the power balance between father and son is upset. As a result, Christine, John, Robert and Tina are all threatened as interlopers, and a decision is finally forced, between the wild or civilization. The chief's son is forced to kill a lion to prove his mettle and he, naturally, singles out Tina's beloved friend King, with disastrous results.
Some of the film's most unsettling scenes involve actress Pamela Franklin wrestling and frolicking with a fully grown lion, a disturbing notion in itself. But there was an additional fear that the lion would maul her to death. Allegedly, sometime during the making of another film, the highly trained lion Zamba killed a menstruating woman on the set.
Despite this knowledge and, in the interest of entertainment, The Lion nevertheless proceeded on schedule, though with an adjusted schedule to accommodate the fact that Pamela had indeed reached puberty and would need to have her own biological schedule coordinated with her lion-wrestling scenes. In his book Magic Hour, director Jack Cardiff fails to explain how a lion that had previously killed a woman was then allowed to act alongside a little girl, beyond the old adage, "the show must go on." The production did, admittedly, take some precautions. Two trained hunters with guns perpetually trained on Zamba were always on set when Pamela acted with the lion. As Cardiff noted in Conversations with Jack Cardiff by Justin Bowyer, "It was a lovely lion, but you had to be aware of the fact that any lion could suddenly snap." Cardiff went on to qualify that when the script called for King to wrestle with the little girl, a small lion tamer wearing a wig and a dress would be substituted for Pamela, though those shooters were still on hand, should the lion go too Method, lose focus and go for the throat. To acclimate Zamba to working with Pamela Franklin, first a piece of her clothing was introduced. Over time, the pair met face to face, first at some distance, and then moving closer and closer.
At one point, Cardiff described an emboldened Pamela Franklin passing by the cage of a younger lion on set and slipping her hand in for a friendly pet. The lion clamped down playfully on her arm and when she jerked away in fear, clamped down harder. Cardiff remembered "the damage wasn't too bad" after some of the adults managed to remove the lion's mouth from Pamela's arm.
The fully-grown lion Zamba arrived in Africa with trainer Ralph Helfer and his assistant Stewart in tow. Stewart, according to a story told by Cardiff in Magic Hour, had the nightly duty of feeding Zamba his buckets of bloody meat. One evening, as he approached the cage, he encountered another lion he initially confused for Zamba. Shocked to see Zamba outside his cage, he quickly realized it wasn't the star animal but a wild lion that had been attracted by Zamba's scent. Stewart naturally high tailed it away, leaving the meat behind.
Filmed on location in Kenya and Uganda, The Lion features breathtaking scenery and glimpses of exotic animals that make the film an odd hybrid of adventure story and melodrama. The strange sexual innuendos involving "poaching" and the two he-men battling over possession of Christine might be better explained by the original novel, written by Joseph Kessel, who also wrote the controversial 1928 story of a French housewife who moonlights as a prostitute, Belle de Jour.
The exotic wild backdrop for The Lion came at the impetus of Holden, who loved Africa and co-owned property in Kenya, the Mount Kenya Safari Club. According to William Holden: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua, Holden convinced 20th Century Fox to build a soundstage in Africa to film The Lion and on his property. Holden would go on to become a passionate voice for animal protection and preservation in Africa. The film reunited good friends Trevor Howard and Holden who had previously worked together on Carol Reed's The Key (1958).
William Holden biographer Lawrence J. Quick, in The Films of William Holden observed that the role of Robert Hayward was not one of Holden's most dynamic or memorable, according to the scribes of the day. "This was one of Holden's more tired performances," noted Quick, "the critics commenting on his listlessness and somehow-bemused manner."
During the making of The Lion, Holden initiated a romance with the beautiful French actress Capucine, who began her career as a model for the likes of couture houses Dior and Givenchy. Upon first meeting Capucine, according to author Capua, Holden remarked "she is the most beautiful woman in the world." Guilt over double-timing both then wife Brenda Marshall (nee Ardis Ankerson) and Capucine's husband (and Holden's good friend) Charles Feldman, reputedly drove Holden to more intense drinking to assuage his regret.
Despite its exotic locale and a genuinely entertaining storyline, The Lion was not received with open arms by critics. In a review from The New York Morning Telegraph reviewer Leo Mishkin described Zamba as "even more handsome than William Holden." Equally contemptuous, Time's critic said of the lion Zamba that he "looks as though he came from F.A.O. Schwartz and waddles like a middle-aged millionaire stuffed with Chateaubriand and Trancopal."
Critics seemed to agree that the human custodial melodrama was less charming than the native scenery and wild animal action. Writing in The New York Times Bosley Crowther stated "this picture abounds in handsome foliage, in color, of wild animals in Kenya...but the drama concocted for the movie is a distressing lot of twaddle that considerably gets in the way of the naturalist theme of the novel and the love affair of the youngster with the lion."
Director: Jack Cardiff
Producer: Samuel G. Engel
Screenplay: Irene and Louis Kamp based on a novel by Joseph Kessel
Cinematography: Edward Scaife
Production Design: Alan Withy
Music: Malcolm Arnold
Cast: William Holden (Robert Hayward), Capucine (Christine), Trevor Howard (John Bullit), Pamela Franklin (Tina), Makara Kwaiha Ramadhani (Bogo), Zakee (Ol' Kalu), Paul Oduor (Orlunga), Zamba (King).
by Felicia Feaster