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20/20 Filmsight - Film Criticism by David O'Connell

Film Criticism by David O'Connell

Born Free

June 21st 2010 06:00
By David O'Connell

David O'Connell writes the website Screen Fanatic as well as contributing to InFilm Australia. He lives in a house weighed down with thousands upon thousands of film scores and VHS tapes slowly dissolving to dust. His favourite directors include Billy Wilder, Sidney Lumet, Patrice Leconte, Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and David Cronenberg. He also greatly admires French and Swedish cinema (even the ones without naughty bits).

What’s the fastest way to make a grown man cry? Deem his 5000-strong DVD collection "puny"? No, that’s not it. Slash his car tyres with a razor? Nah, if it was me, you’d be doing me a favour. How about telling him his dog just died - or that they’ve just green-lit ten more Sex and the City sequels?

Or maybe you should just show him Born Free, the 1966 documentary-as-fiction drama about a couple’s love for a pretty lioness named Elsa who they have the greatest of difficulty parting with. Should they return her to the wild where her natural habitat calls, or keep her domesticated to a life spent entirely in the presence of humans?

Contributing uncomfortably to the loss of dignity for most men is the haunting regality of John Barry’s Oscar-winning score which - anchored by that indelible main theme - resounds plaintively, a true precursor to the sound of dam walls breaking apart inside the hardiest of hearts.

Set in the wilds of Kenya, game warden George Adamson (Bill Travers) is first seem helping some locals dispatch a ferocious man-eating lion, only to discover that he’s left a trio of cute cubs orphaned. He and wife Joy (Virginia McKenna) decide to take care of the cute youngsters for a while, assigning each a name and watching in wonder as they develop distinct personalities. The one Joy takes a real shine to however is the smallest of the trio, Elsa, who has to work extra hard to make her mark.

Joy’s intermittent narration speaks of her growing fondness for the young lions as we see their expanding bodies take graceful shape. We see their increasingly comfortable interactions with humans, their playful antics; for a time it’s no different to having enthusiastic oversized dogs plodding around the house, hopping aboard the couple’s truck as they venture off to perform chores, though the focus remains firmly on Elsa and her special connection to Joy.

Then a dark day they've been dreading looms; it's reaching the point where the young lions will be too unwieldy to manage, with the most practical option being to send them to a zoo. When the day finally arrives, the trauma is too much for Joy who surely imagines a parellel with a mother relinquishing a child to authorities. Poor soft-hearted George takes the decision temporarily out of Joy’s hands however, giving up the other two but holding on to Elsa.

Cue more bonding and more cute antics before they confront a grim reality: with a return to England forthcoming, Elsa will have to be taught the ways of the wild before being left to fend for herself if they aren’t prepared to offer her to a zoo. George wants to do just that but Joy is resolute – Elsa has only ever experienced ultimate freedom and a cage will bind her to an unhappiness that will eventually destroy her spirit and consume her life.

Joy (Virginia McKenna) and George Adamson (Bill Travers) with Elsa.

Based on the book by the real Joy Adamson, Born Free isn’t a great film by any means, but it’s a heart-warming one which is where its broadest appeal lies. Animals are innately endearing creatures to most of us and bearing witness to the humanisation of a creature traditionally considered only for its fierce instincts and killing prowess has great appeal.

Director James Hill is adept at playing up the humour of situations, allowing us to admire an alternate take on the lion kingdom through Elsa’s adventures. Perhaps the funniest moment comes as George takes Elsa hunting, a skill she proves to be totally inept at, even allowing a little pipsqueak of a creature to turn tail and beat her up with a series of deflating head-buts. To her credit Elsa takes her punishment like a nasty but necessary medicinal comeuppance. Gingerly, master George scans the immediate horizon to be sure there are no witnesses to this indignity.

The general uppity but endearing British stodginess of Travers and McKenna (who were also a couple in real life) is cause for bemusement too but probably less intentionally so than Elsa’s hi-jinks. George and Joy sleep in separate beds, kiss in the most chaste manner possible (like third cousins with skin conditions), and lightly berate one another like children. It’s a funny relationship in more ways than one.

Predictably, desperate measures are called for in the end, leading to a heart-rending goodbye and postscript. Take a wild stab at how it pans out and you probably won’t be far off the mark, but if you’ve never seen Born Free, be prepared for a final scene that will rip your fragile waterworks to shreds, leaving you thrusting towels at the floor to stem the terrifying, emasculating flow. Of course I credit John Barry and his subtle orchestral manipulation for much of the damage; that iconic theme is sure to turn the rigid stone inside your chest into a palpitating marshmallow in double-quick time.

Born Free is best experienced alone, in a back room, with the lights off and the blinds sealed. Men need to seriously consider the possibility of a fateful urge to inform any woman who may respect them of their viewing of this film. I highly recommend this cathartic cinematic experience however, despite the ramifications.

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7 Comments. [ Add A Comment ]

Comment by MelG

June 21st 2010 09:39
I really loved this film. Yes I cried - a lot - but that only made it better for me. I can't go past a good animal flick. Thanks for the review.

Comment by Matt Shea

June 21st 2010 10:04
Great write-up Dave. I've never heard of this. I like to think of myself as fairly tight when it comes to the waterworks, but big cat drama could be enough to break my hard heart. Sounds like one of Barry's stranger assignments, but I could very well check this out just on his name alone.

Comment by JohnDoe

June 21st 2010 14:08
Hi Dave,

This one made me cry too as a kid. I haven't been brave enough to revisit Born Free as an adult but am sure it would end in tears.

Really a classic for its design and heartfelt execution.

Comment by Bryn

June 22nd 2010 04:30
I used to love the television spin-off ...
Have you heard of the documentary A Lion Called Christian?

5000 movies?! Sheesh. I can compete against that with my record collection, but not with DVDs. I wonder how many I do have?

Comment by David O'Connell

June 22nd 2010 06:33
Mel, I don't think many people would be able to avoid shedding a tear at the end of this one!

Matt, you've never heard of Born Free? You could knock me over with a feather mate!
This was indeed unusual ground for Barry at a time when he was becoming increasingly known for his astounding work on the Bond films. But this was definitely a forerunner to the type of lush, romantic music he would become associated with in the second half of his career, including great work like Out of Africa, Somewhere in Time, Dances with Wolves, etc.

JD, it's just as affecting as you no doubt remember it. I've been aware of it for years but just avoided it until now. Some of these old classics just become too tempting to resist when you see them sitting in the cheap bins at Target for 5 or 6 bucks!

Bryn, apparently there's a sequel (with different people) to Born Free as well. Maybe I'll have to hunt that one down too. I have seen the Lion Called Christian story when it became a Youtube sensation. It is a very similar story to Born Free, no doubt about it.
Personally I don't have 5000 DVD's - I probably do have around 5000 movies but nearly all are on old fading VHS tapes - except for 3-4 hundred DVD's.
I do have about 5000 music CD's, probably much the same as you, though around 4000 of those are film scores.

Comment by Bryn

June 22nd 2010 07:55
4000 film scores. Now that is impressive. And just what is your favourite? Top ten? I feel a post coming on ...

I tried selling my VHS at a garage sale. Now that was difficult. A friend said, "Dude, I have one word for you: skip." .... I can't bear to throw them out, so will try again at the next garage sale. Some are really great movies, and even letterboxed, but let's face it, watching VHS quality compared to DVD (let alone Blu-ray) is a pitiful.

Comment by David O'Connell

June 22nd 2010 08:24
Absolutely Bryn, no comparison and I hardly watch anything on the old player anymore though it still goes OK.

Top 10 film scores? Hell, I should do a series of list posts on my favourites, but I might just drop dead before I ever reach the end of it!

If pushed for an all-time favourite - the one I've played the most - it'd probably be Jerry Goldsmith's Alien.
So many dozens of others though: incl. Vertigo, Poltergeist, Diamonds are Forever, Braveheart, The Fury, Raiders of the Lost Ark, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Day the Earth Stood Still........................ .......

What are some of yours mate? You must have a few scattered amongst your massive collection too I imagine?

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