Born Free

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Born Free
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJames Hill
Produced bySam Jaffe
Paul Radin
Screenplay byLester Cole
Based onBorn Free by Joy Adamson
StarringVirginia McKenna
Bill Travers
Music byJohn Barry
CinematographyKenneth Talbot
Edited byDon Deacon
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • 14 March 1966 (1966-03-14)
(UK) (Royal Film Performance)
  • 22 June 1966 (1966-06-22)
Running time
95 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget$2 million[1]
Box office$3.6 million (est. US/ Canada rentals)[2]

Born Free is a 1966 British drama film starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers as Joy and George Adamson, a real-life couple who raised Elsa the Lioness, an orphaned lion cub, to adulthood, and released her into the wilderness of Kenya. The film was produced by Open Road Films Ltd. and Columbia Pictures. The screenplay, written by blacklisted Hollywood writer Lester Cole (under the pseudonym "Gerald L.C. Copley"), was based upon Joy Adamson's 1960 non-fiction book Born Free. The film was directed by James Hill and produced by Sam Jaffe and Paul Radin. Born Free, and its musical score by John Barry, won numerous awards.


When George Adamson is forced to kill a lion, after the lion kills a native villager, and then George kills a lioness out of self-defence, he brings home the three orphaned cubs she had been trying to protect. The Adamsons tend to the three orphaned lion cubs to young lionhood, and, when the time comes, the two largest are sent to the Rotterdam Zoo, while Elsa the Lioness (the smallest of the litter) remains with Joy. When Elsa is held responsible for stampeding a herd of elephants through a village, John Kendall, Adamson's boss, gives the couple three months to either rehabilitate Elsa to the wild, or send her to a zoo. Joy opposes sending Elsa to a zoo, and spends much time attempting to reintroduce Elsa to the life of a wild lion in a distant reserve. At last, she succeeds, and with mixed feelings and a breaking heart, she returns her friend to the wild. The Adamsons then depart for their home in England; a year later they return to Kenya for a week, hoping to find Elsa. They do, and happily discover she hasn't forgotten them and is the mother of three cubs. The Adamsons made an agreement not to handle the cubs, in contrast to the way they did with Elsa.


The film's credits list lions and lionesses Boy, Girl, Henrietta, Mara, Ugas, and "the Cubs".


The film reunited the real life couple Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna as a couple first seen together in The Smallest Show on Earth in 1957.

George Adamson served as chief technical advisor on the film and discusses his involvement in his first autobiography, Bwana Game (UK title, 1968), known in the US as A Lifetime with Lions.[3] According to Ben Mankiewicz, who introduces the film on Turner Classic Movies, the production unit mainly used wild lions.[citation needed]

The making of the film was a life-changing experience for actors Virginia McKenna and her husband Bill Travers, who became animal rights activists and were instrumental in creating the Born Free Foundation.

One of the lions in the film was played by a former mascot of the Scots Guards, who had to leave him behind when they left Kenya.[4] The producers also acknowledged the help received from Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and the Game Department of Uganda.

Critical response and box-office[edit]

Born Free received critical acclaim. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 92 percent of 12 film critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 7 out of 10.[5]

Vincent Canby waxed enthusiastic about the film, writing in The New York Times, "Almost from the opening shot – a vast expanse of corn-coloured African plain where lions feed on the carcass of a freshly killed zebra – one knows that Joy Adamson's best-selling book Born Free has been entrusted to honest, intelligent filmmakers. Without minimising the facts of animal life or overly sentimentalising them, this film casts an enchantment that is just about irresistible."[6]

The film was one of the most popular movies at the box-office in Britain during 1966.[7]




The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Sequels and spinoffs[edit]

The book Born Free (1960) was followed by two other books, Living Free (1961) and Forever Free (1963). In 1972, a film sequel entitled Living Free was released. While deriving its name from the second book, the film was based on the third book in the series. It starred Susan Hampshire and Nigel Davenport as Joy and George Adamson.

A documentary follow-up to Born Free, entitled The Lions Are Free, was released in 1969. The film follows Born Free-actor Bill Travers as he journeys to a remote area in Kenya to visit George Adamson, and several of Adamson's lion friends.

In 1974, a 13-episode American television series was broadcast by NBC, entitled Born Free, starring Diana Muldaur and Gary Collins as Joy and George Adamson. The series was later followed by television film in 1996 called Born Free: A New Adventure, with Linda Purl and Chris Noth. Joy and George Adamson do not appear as the main characters in the story.

To Walk with Lions (1999) depicts the last years of George Adamson's life, as seen through the eyes of his assistant, Tony Fitzjohn. George is portrayed by Richard Harris, and Honor Blackman makes a brief appearance as Joy.

The one-hour Nature documentary Elsa's Legacy: The Born Free Story was released on PBS stations in January 2011. It includes a collection of archival footage and an exploration into the lives of Joy and George Adamson during the years following release of the film.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Champlin, C. (1966, Oct 10). Foreman hopes to reverse runaway. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from
  2. ^ "Big Rental Pictures of 1966", Variety, 4 January 1967 p 8
  3. ^ Bibliography – BooksFilmsMovies
  4. ^ LIFE – Google Books. 28 November 1969. Retrieved 2012-01-04.
  5. ^ "Born Free". Flixster. Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 18 December 2012.
  6. ^ Canby, Vincent (23 June 1966). "The Screen: Honesty and Humor Make 'Born Free' a Fresh and Moving Film:Biography of Lion Has Documentary Flavor". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 December 2012.
  7. ^ "Most popular star for third time." Times [London, England] 31 Dec. 1966: 5. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 16 Sept. 2013.
  8. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-06.
  9. ^ "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-06.
  10. ^ Ray, Rachel (7 January 2011). "Elsa's Legacy: The Born Free Story, Nature on PBS – US TV review". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 18 December 2012.

External links[edit]