Cult Movie: Born Free is animal magic

Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna with their cute lion cub co-stars in Born Free
Ralph McLean

Born Free

IF I mention the 1966 film Born Free, chances are you're immediately thinking of John Barry and Don Black's soaring signature tune.

A vast, sweeping melody from Barry, one of the true kings of the classic soundtrack, married to Black's equally epic lyrics, it is cinema songwriting at its most lavish and rousing.

It's so good in fact it's possibly more famous than the film from which it came.

Delivered by the crooning pipes of the singing busman Matt Monro it's as grand a movie theme as you could ever want. Odd then to think it didn't even appear in the original theatrical version of the film on its initial British release.

Watching Eureka's new Blu-ray of Born Free is a reminder that James Hill's film is much more than an Oscar winning piece of music.

A beautiful looking, and at times genuinely moving, recreation of the true events chronicled in Joy Adamson's hugely successful 1960 book of the same name, it deserves a much better rep than it currently has.

The film starts in Kenya where game warden George Adamson (Bill Travers) kills a threatening lion and his lioness and arrives home with their three surviving cubs.

George and his wife Joy (Virginia McKenna) quickly decide to raise the cubs until they are old enough to be released again into the wild.

What starts as a cute idea grows problematic as the cubs get older and more difficult to control. The couple subsequently off-load two of the cubs to a zoo in Europe and focus on the remaining one who they name Elsa.

Bonding with their new family member, they eventually try to set the young beast free – but Elsa struggles and almost dies on her own in the wild.

George and Joy begin the slow process of teaching her the survival skills necessary to make it in her natural habitat. After she is released, the couple return to the savannah and are surprised to see the special welcome they get from their old friend.

There's a real magic and beauty in the scenes between the humans and the lioness and an almost documentary feel to much of the footage where Elsa interacts with George and Joy.

Travers and McKenna deserve special credit for the way they throw themselves into the job of getting up close and personal with Elsa and the resulting film of them together is both astonishing to look at and genuinely moving to behold.

Most Hollywood-produced animal tales are sickly and sentimental in their portrayal of animals and their relationships with humans, but while there are the obligatory moments where Hill tugs on our heart strings, this mostly goes for an impressive sense of realism rather than silver screen soppiness.

The cinematography is simply lush as well capturing the beautiful wide open spaces of Kenya and adding a romantic quality to the look of the film that brings depth and scale to what is essentially a very simple story.

This lovingly restored Eureka edition offers a gorgeous high-definition transfer, audio commentary from historians Jon Burlingame, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, a brace of featurettes on the real life Elsa and material on the Born Free Foundation who continue to promote the welfare of lions to this day.

There's even an isolated audio track for those who want to wallow in that luscious John Barry score one more time.

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