“That’s why we liked this film! It looks like Africa,” my mother said as James Hill’s Born Free started and the camera panned over the wilderness of northern Kenya. The first time she saw Hill’s crowd-pleasing classic about Joy and George Adamson, a pair of British naturalists who rehabilitate an orphaned lion cub into the wild, it was on a white sheet stretched out into a make-shift theater screen in the Congo—then known as Zaire. Born to a missionary couple, my mother grew up in a similar environment inhabited by the film’s characters.
True, her native Zaire was more Central Africa than the coastal West Africa of Kenya, but we could scarcely go ten minutes without a mention of how the film reminded her of her childhood:
“Why is that African calling Joy “memsahib?” That’s an Indian term.”
“You can tell this movie is accurate by how sunburned the white people are.”
“Look at those tents! I lived in one just like it! And let me tell you, those army cots were not comfortable!”
Also watching the film with us was my sister, a photographer who has traveled to the Congo and Zambia on two different research trips. She would also throw in her own delighted observations on the film’s verisimilitude:
“Whenever we would drive through a rural village, the local peoples would always chase after the truck just like that!”
“Now that’s an African road! So wet and muddy you slide through it sideways!”
I must admit I was a bit more than gently envious of my mother and sister. Watching Born Free I was witnessing a historical fiction. They were reliving their own lives.
All three of us loved it, of course. Born Free, available now in a terrific Blu-Ray release courtesy of Twilight Time, in conjunction with the film’s 50th anniversary, is nothing if not a family film. Though based on a true, if sanitized story—in real life the rescued lion cub named Elsa was never fully rehabilitated and died piteously and prematurely of a tick disease; the happily married Joy and George eventually divorced and were both brutally murdered in two separate incidents—the film works best as a parable about parents and children.
Noticeably childless, Joy and George adopt Elsa after killing her parents in retribution for an attack on local villagers. They go through the usual trials of parenthood: nursing; potty-training; socialization; and even education in the form of teaching her how to hunt and survive on her own. One of the funniest sequences involves Elsa’s “first date” where they take her to interact with an outsider male lion. And as with most first dates, it goes disastrously.
Everything leads up to the moment of truth where Joy and George force Elsa to return to the wild before leaving on a year long trip to England. It’s a struggle every parent knows: the desire to keep a child a child forever and the knowledge that they need to grow up one day and leave.
My mother knows this well. Both of her children have gone away from home and started lives of their own. But we still come together as often as possible. Maybe one day one of us will return home with a few cubs of our own just like Elsa. Until then, we have this movie, a warm, melancholy tearjerker both immediate in its emotion and timeless in its theme.
Born Free is available on limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, just in time for the film’s 50th anniversary. Special Features include an isolated track of John Barry’s Academy Award-winning score, and audio commentary with film historians Jon Burlingame, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman.