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Born Free

Born Free
Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment
1966 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 & 1:33 flat pan scan / 95 min. / Street Date March 4, 2003 / $19.95
Starring Virginia McKenna, Bill Travers, Geoffrey Keen, Peter Lukoye, Omar Chambati
Cinematography Kenneth Talbot
Film Editor Don Decon
Original Music John Barry
Written by Lester Cole from the novel by Joy Adamson
Produced by Sam Jaffe, Paul B. Radin
Directed by James Hill

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A sterling case of the family-animal film upgraded to quality status, Born Free is a fine entertainment that approaches its subject with maturity and grace. A must-see when it came out, the story of the lioness Elsa and her human parents may not teach us everything there is to know about lions, but it doesn't insult our intelligence either. And the animal-activist husband and wife team of Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers are always pleasant company.

Better still, Columbia's disc has widescreen and pan-scan transfers. I'd forgotten that this movie actually looks good (after seeing bad tv prints) - it looks terrific in 16:9.


Game wardens Joy and George Adamson (Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers) adopt 3 orphaned lion cubs when George has to shoot their mother. When they grow too big, two are sent to a zoo in the Netherlands, but Joy can't allow to be separated from her 'daughter', Elsa, so George relents and they keep the smallest of the cubs. Elsa eventually becomes unmanageable, but instead of shipping her off, Joy and George dedicate themselves to acclimatizing the adult lion to the wild, so that she can live free.

Yes, it has the Matt Munro song, the one that hasn't stopped playing since 1966. The John Barry score is pleasingly familiar. In the tense scenes, it sounds a lot like his Thunderball music from the year before.

The producers of Born Free definitely got it right - it's the old story of a pet that turns into a member of the family, but it's not an infantile embarassment. The incredibly cute scenes of the lion cubs cutting up are right up front, and win us over without delay. Perhaps the practicality of trying to live with a trio of growing lions is a bit exaggerated, but Bill and Virginia are so down to Earth that we never get stuck in MGM bathos ("Don't shoot my deer, daddy!") or Disney idiocy ("Now those two bear cubs, heh heh, have a little fun in the kitchen!"). When the comedy comes, it's pretty sly. I love the shot of three long, droopy lions being carried to a truck, like a trio of Pink Panthers. When the lioness Elsa reaches 'womanhood', the Adamsons' attitude about sex is healthy enough that they can make sly faces at one another ("Elsa's in season now!") and still keep the film on track.

Educators and Parent's Magazine types naturally applauded the fairly realistic presentation of the wild animals, which are never anthropomorphosed. Elsa is a pet and there are a number of staged scenes - the play in the surf wasn't bettered until The Black Stallion - but she's never required to act like Lassie. Even Virginia's emotional attachment, that makes the couple go to extraordinary lengths to make Elsa's life a success, is placed in perspective. These people do what they do because they love animals, and they are uniquely qualified to let lion ownership be the governing principle of their lives. But it isn't the kind of MGM situation where adults are sacrificing all to save one motley lion, or some other kind of out-of-proportion arrangement. Actually, we do wonder what else the Adamsons can accomplish as game wardens besides looking after Elsa. Keeping tabs on her would appear to be a full-time job.

Few other films have learned the lessons of Born Free. There's the interesting Ring of Bright Water, also with Virginia and Bill, but sea otters aren't quite as loveable as baby lions. That was the hook in 1966 - we thought the baby lions playing was the most hilarious footage ever filmed. Television flattened out the commercial prospects by filling us up to our ears with Ivan Tors animal shows, the kind that always ended like this:

Father character: "Well, I guess that takes care of those poachers!"

Kids: "You bet dad!

(All laugh, then (Flipper/Gentle Ben/generic animal) responds by (chattering and dancing on its tail/woofing and nodding its head/whatever))

"Hey dad, (Flipper/Ben/?) thinks so too!

(All Laugh, fade)

Tors & Co. made a fortune, but really mucked up the genre with cross-eyed lions and zebras in the kitchen, etc., so much so that real animals rarely had a place in films. Unfortunately, Living Free, the sequel to Born Free, retold the same story, only with over-hyped jungle dangers - animal attacks, floods, etc. The last film of this kind I paid any attention to was Free Willy. It turned out not to be a randy ad in the personals section, but another lamentable Lassie story where the problems of one lonely whale in this world are much bigger than a hill of beans, and don't you forget it.

Born Free is a relaxing pleasure. Travers and McKenna are a laid-back couple who seemingly dedicated themselves to quality entertainment, often of an ecologically sound nature. McKenna had become an icon of integrity for her playing of spy Violette Szabo in Carve Her Name With Pride, and when Travers did a monster movie, it was the superior Gorgo, a colossal sea monster tale with an anti-commercial, pro-nature subtext:

"...She turns, turns with her young, leaving the haunts of man, leaving man to ponder the proud boast that he alone is lord over all creation." (Gorgo roars in triumph)

That's basically what Elsa does at the end of Born Free, too, only with hugs and kisses.

Columbia TriStar's DVD of Born Free is a big surprise after years of seeing grainy television prints. I'd always assumed that it was shot in 16mm, when in reality it's a Panavision picture with an excellent widescreen look. Only a few shots appear to be blown up from flat 35, and Columbia has matched them rather well. Columbia could have released only a pan-scan version of this family film, as do some other studios, but opted to be generous with a double format presentation.

Besides trailers, there are no extras. Born Free will have a special appeal to cat lovers, and is highly recommended to anyone trying to teach kids what animals are really like.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Born Free rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 10, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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