Born Free

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday December 30, 2015

Born Free

Twilight Time's Blu-ray reissue of the 1966 movie "Born Free" comes as a welcome addition to the slate of classic films available on the high-definition format. Though the film doesn't necessarily look as though it's been remastered, the hi-def transfer is virtually flawless.

Dubbed a "quasi-documentary," the film is, in fact, a dramatization. As the highly literate accompanying essay by Julie Kirgo notes, the movie is based on fact but doesn't present all of the facts in its telling, preferring to give us a carefully modulated illusion. The product is a tender fairy tale about people learning to respect and work with nature; a South African game keeper named George Adamson (Bill Tavers) and his wife Joy (Virginia McKenna) end up caring for a trio of lion cubs after George hunts down their man-eating father. Their mother, seeking to protect the cubs, rushes at the hunting party. After shooting both animals, George takes the cubs home to try to save them; he and Joy succeed, but big cats can never be domesticated. As they grow larger, the cubs simply need more than George and Joy can provide for them; they need to be sent to a zoo.

Joy can't let go of Elsa, the least aggressive and the smallest of the litter. She and the cub have formed a special bond that's almost parental in nature. Joy manages to keep Elsa a while longer, but since she and George are planning a lengthy sojourn in England they have to figure out what to do with Elsa. What's more, Elsa is still an unmanageable handful: Her innate need to hunt drives her to stalk a herd of wild elephants. When Elsa causes them to stampede, the elephants cause quite a lot of damage to a local village. On top of that, Elsa rounds up a juvenile elephant, separates him from the herd, and takes him home to George and Joy. Elsa has been put in a position where she's part of neither the human world, nor that of the veldt's ecology; she's creating turmoil in both. Eventually, Joy determines that the now-gown lioness should be reintroduced to the wild, which means teaching her to hunt and finding her a mate.

The movie gives us a dramatic re-telling of the challenges the couple faced in preparing Elsa for life in the wild, but -- as the essay again notes -- skips over the sad facts around Elsa's premature death. Nor does the movie ever acknowledge the failure of George and Joy's marriage, or even hint at any major or ongoing strain between them. (If "Born Free" were re-made today, the film would, one hopes, humanize George and Joy more, and anthropomorphize Elsa less.)

That said, the film carries a nostalgic whiff of 1960s and 70s optimism, especially in terms of our role in the scheme of things and our ability to learn to reintegrate ourselves in the natural order. With lions a critically endangered species -- as illustrated not only by the murder of Cecil the lion by a trophy hunting American earlier this year, but the poisoning of four lions on the same preserve by African goatherds who illegally grazed their animals on land belonging to the preserve -- the film stands as both a reminder of how majestic these animals are, and, ironically, how poorly we have succeeded when it comes to learning to share the planet with forms of life other than our own.

The Blu-ray edition includes an original theatrical trailer, as well as a teaser for the movie.

"Born Free"



Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.