Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Born Free’


PG | 1 h 35 min | Drama, Adventure | 1966

You could say that this story about lions is a very human story, because it’s told with traits you’d hardly expect in lion country. It’s told like a fairytale, to be savored by children and adults. It’s told with respect for the unspoken, but indisputable, dignity of wild animals. It’s told with humor and, above all, with a sensitivity that’s alive to the sacred uniqueness of each animal.

Stationed in 1950s’ Kenya, wildlife warden George Adamson and wife Joy (played by real-life showbiz couple Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna) shelter a lion cub after George is forced to put down her man-eating parents. Charmed by her playfulness, the couple impulsively take the cub and her siblings into their care, without realizing what they’re getting themselves (and the cub) into.

Joy Adamson (Virginia McKenna) and George Adamson (Bill Travers) hold cubs, in "Born Free." (MovieStillsDB)
Joy Adamson (Virginia McKenna) and George Adamson (Bill Travers) hold cubs, in "Born Free." (MovieStillsDB)

As they name her Elsa and nurse her to adulthood (her siblings end up in zoos), she teaches them hard lessons about the wild and its untamable essence. Alongside the wonder of rearing her, comes the pain of seeing her domesticated, and then struggling to readjust to the wild.

Attached as they are to her, the couple face a choice: Should Elsa also end up in a zoo where bars and barricades will doubtlessly kill her free spirit? Or should she return to the wild, where her still kittenish nature might turn her into prey before she regains her stature as predator?

The film isn’t about the bond between the real-life George and Joy, which was far from idyllic anyway, but about their tender and troubled bond with Elsa. Sparks fly when they argue over their selfish need to keep petting her into old age, instead of focusing on her best interests.

Filming in the Wild

Many modern-day crews filming in the wild typically overuse slow motion, frenetic cuts, agitated zoom-in-outs, souped up soundtracks, and fevered voiceovers to sensationalize mundane animal activity: predators walking or stalking, prey balking. With none of these gimmicks and George Adamson on the set as consultant, the cast, director, screenwriter, editor, and cinematographer of “Born Free” bring out the hilarity (and horror) of raising a lion, as a pet. For all their power and cunning, animals caught in human-like situations, such as a sudden scare, betray a childlike innocence and fragility.
Elsa the lioness and her three cubs, in "Born Free." (MovieStillsDB)
Elsa the lioness and her three cubs, in "Born Free." (MovieStillsDB)

There’s fabulous footage of lion cubs playing with bedsheets, pawing each other in a basket, goofing around with sofa cushions, tearing down a clothesline, or being startled by a garden-sprinkler fizzing to life. There’s astounding footage of a grown Elsa, frolicking with the Adamsons in ocean waves, playing ball on a beach, stirring up an elephant stampede, being headbutted by a wandering warthog, and stopping Joy from strolling into a cobra, coiled to strike in tall grass.

Extreme wide shots show the sprawling Kenyan plains teeming with wildlife (wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, bison, rhino). John Barry’s score lends majesty to the storytelling, every scene a riot of raging color, movement, hot breath, and dust.

Animal handlers used not one, but several cubs and grown lions to capture a range of moods, from anticipation, delight and contentment to boredom, frustration, and fury. They replaced trained with relatively untrained lions to secure the unschooled feel that the story requires, while the crew stayed safely behind wire cages.

The film so moved the actors that they turned conservationists through their “Born Free Foundation,” devoting their lives to ensuring that wild animals stayed wild, and discouraging the rearing of animals in captivity. Their point? Freedom’s so essential to the wild, that any creature caged, no matter how roomily, ceases to be itself; captivity robs it of its very nature.

In interviews, McKenna has said that it’s hard to empathize with animals if you see them as a bland, blurred collective: a pride, a herd, a horde. But interact with an animal as an individual, at any depth beyond the superficial, and you can’t bear to see it suffer. As Joy in the film, she says of the cubs, “Even as babies, each had a different character.”

McKenna and Travers spent time in George’s home, within roaring distance of real lions, under “vast Kenya skies,“ as McKenna notes, ”with their extraordinary cloud formations which, miraculously, never seemed to obscure the sun.” She has spoken respectfully of how George, who raised real lions in the wild, taught her, through actions more than words, to gain the trust of a lion, and to read its body language.  

In a tragic, sobering, twist, the actors lived to old age, dying of natural causes, but the Adamsons, so faithful to saving lives, were in, separate random instances, both murdered. Makes you wonder, sometimes, doesn’t it? Who’s wild?

"Born Free" tells how a cub raised by Joy and George Adamson were freed in the wild. (MovieStillsDB)
"Born Free" tells how a cub raised by Joy and George Adamson were freed in the wild. (MovieStillsDB)
‘Born Free’ Director: James Hill Starring: Bill Travers, Virginia McKenna MPAA Rating: PG Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes Release Date: June 22, 1966 Rated: 5 stars out of 5
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture. He may be reached at X, formerly known as Twitter: @RudolphFernandz
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