The creative minds behind Born Free are a suspicious bunch. Their film, under loose inspection, comes across as something Disney would have approved had they agreed to have one of their films, namely the Lion King or Jungle Book, re-imagined for a live action interpretation. All their classic signatures seem to be present: a whimsical, sweeping fantasia of a musical score, lighthearted comical interplay between the leads, and rich, organic colors that illuminate a world unknown to what American audiences are used to in their daily lives. However, their end product ends up bypassing all these superficial comparisons and leaves them with a simple and subtle film about nature versus nurture in Africa.
Yet, Born Free is a genuine and peculiar film all it’s own. Strange, in that a picture about orphaned lions was scored by the same man, John Barry, who cranked out James Bond themes for most of his professional career. The screenplay was delivered by Lester Cole, the infamously blacklisted member of the Hollywood Ten who penned the film under the name “Gerard L.C. Copley”. And by the end of filming, the affecting experience made animal rights activists out of the film’s two leads, Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, who were extremely active in founding the Born Free Foundation, an organization responsible for saving 25,000 wild animals.
What makes the film almost odd is in its own genuineness. The story comes from the 1960 non-fictional book of the same name by Joy Adamson, who’s simple and moving account of how she raised a wild lion cub to maturity and then eventually re-educated it so that it could return to live freely in the wild reached international acclaim. Born Free revels in anti-sensationalizing its subject matter. It does this to such an extent that it nearly creates a paradoxical label unto itself; see “fictional documentary” a faux-genre only to be seen to be believed. While the film was actually shot in Kenya and contained remarkable animals, one of the lions was the former mascot of the Scot Guards of the British Army, Born Free carries itself so casually its almost easy to forget that everybody is acting.
Very much like the style of chit-chatty prose found in Adamson’s book, Virginia McKenna resembles this untailored persona by coming off as an earthily-ingrained devout of the wild. She is married to her hunter husband, yet the romance between them in the film is so subdued, you’d think they pleasantly friend zoned each other and kept things at that. In an interview with PBS, McKenna admits to many wonderful memories of shooting the film, “Sharing dawn walks with lions on the African plains. Swimming with a lioness in the ocean. Living in an old settler’s house in the bush, within roaring distance of the lions. The kindness of the Kenyan people we met and with whom we worked,” all of which could account for her fluid naturalness to the role.
The crew had also traveled up to Meru to revisit the places where Elsa lived and brought her cubs to the Adamson’s camp and where she died. Incidentally, McKenna broke her ankle during pre-production by a very excited, co-actor lion who meant well by playfully jumping on her, but ultimately unaware of his own brute strength. Unphased by the accident, the crew proceeded onwards working very closely with the Adamsons throughout their stay in Africa.
The film is genuine, to say the least, and comes across as such. Its strong card is innocence, where anyone who figuratively has both feet in the door to heaven might bat a lash at how inoffensive and pure Born Free really is. At times, it even seems frustrating when it becomes clear that you are indeed watching a movie, and not a documentary. Even McKenna, in her PBS interview, refers to the film as a documentary and not a fictional piece of work. This does not help nor deter the Disney comparisons, but they still stand at points in the film.
Those who are interested in Joy Adamson’s work, or those curious to witness the trivial, seeming impossibility of nurturing a creature into nature would be delighted to find that Born Free is too good to be true. You will not find a film so straight-faced in its approach and refreshingly un-preachy on the dangers of the wild. The film, like the actors and the crew, embrace their surroundings and deliver an experience as realistic as National Geographic, if not moreso. There are no theatrics, nor is there much drama as the film can be classified. It is simply an educational experience with a light touch of human warmth.