Born Free (1966): Oscar-Winning Blockbuster, Tale of Family and Lioness

Set in gorgeously shot Kenya, James Hill’s popular British family film centers on game warden George Adamson and his wife Joy (Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna).  The couple raise three orphaned lion clubs, and as the animals grow older, they face the challenge of teaching them how to survive in the wilderness on their own.

The screenplay was written by the blacklisted Hollywood writer Lester Cole, using the pseudonym of Gerald L.C. Copley.  Like other blacklisted scribes, such as Carl Forman, Cole was forced into exile, working in the U.K.

The story is simple enough to be enjoyed by all members of the family.  By today’s standards, there may be too much voice-over narration to bridge the episodic structure of the narrative, which nonetheless always remains engaging.

When George Adamson is forced to kill a lioness in self-defense, he brings home three orphaned cubs. The Adamsons tend to the orphaned lion cubs, and then send the two big ones to the Rotterdam Zoo, while Elsa the Lioness (the smallest one) remains with Joy.

Elsa is held responsible for stampeding a herd of elephants, and John Kendall, Adamson’s boss gives the couple ultimatum of three months to rehabilitate Elsa to the wild or send her to a zoo.

Opposing to send Elsa to a zoo, he spends time training Elsa for life in the wilderness.  With mixed feelings of both joy and sadness, she returns Elsa to the wild. The Adamsons depart for the UK, but a year later, they return to Kenya, hoping to find Elsa. Remarkably, she hasn’t forgotten them, and is the mother of three cubs.

The Oscar-winning song, which serves the rather touching story, became a hit on its own terms, later used and reused in several feature documentaries.

Books and Sequels

The book Born Free (1960) was followed by two other books, Living Free (1961) and Forever Free (1963).

In 1972, a sequel titled Living Free, was released, starring Susan Hampshire and Nigel Davenport as Joy and George Adamson.  While it took its name from the second book, the story was based on the series third book.

A documentary follow-up to Born Free, The Lions are Free, was released in 1969. The film follows Born Free-actor Bill Travers as he journeys to Kenya to visit George Adamson and his lion friends.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Song: “Born Free,” music by John Barry, lyrics by Don Black

Original Music Score: John Barry


Oscar Awards: 2


Original Music Score