Born Free
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJames Hill
Screenplay byGerald L.C. Copley
Based onBorn Free
by Joy Adamson
Produced bySam Jaffe
Paul Radin
StarringVirginia McKenna
Bill Travers
CinematographyKenneth Talbot
Edited byDon Deacon
Music byJohn Barry
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release dates
  • 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 the real-life couple Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers as Joy and George Adamson, another 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, as well as the title song, with lyrics by Don Black and sung by Matt Monro, won numerous awards.


In the Northern province of Kenya, British Game Warden George Adamson is forced to kill a man-eating lion and his lioness. He realises too late that the lioness was charging in defence of her three cubs and so, realising the cubs are now motherless, brings them home so he and his wife Joy can raise them. They name the cubs Big One, Lustika and Elsa. When the cubs become too old, Big One and Lustika are sent off to Rotterdam Zoo whilst George and Joy keep Elsa, having become especially attached to her.

Years later, George’s boss, John Kendall informs him that a lion in Kiunga has been killing goats in a local village. George is sent to kill the lion, which he does successfully, allowing him and Joy to enjoy a holiday with Elsa near the Indian ocean. When they return to the Northern Province, the Adamsons learn that Elsa has caused a massive elephant stampede. John says that they can no longer keep Elsa and must find a zoo. However, Joy instead wishes to set Elsa free, believing a zoo would make her miserable. John reluctantly agrees to give the Adamson three months to do so.

The Adamsons bring Elsa to the Meru National Park to begin her rehabilitation. They start off by trying to introduce her to a wild lion along with a kill. This does not go to plan as they return the next day only to find Elsa all alone. Elsa continually fails to make a kill, being attacked by a warthog during one attempt. Eventually, the Adamsons decide to leave Elsa for a week in the bush to encourage her to become more independent. However, they find her severely injured, possibly by wild lions. George now believes Elsa cannot survive so must be sent to a zoo, which Joy opposes, wanting Elsa to have her freedom. This proves to be a good decision because Elsa eventually leaves for days at a time, making several kills by herself. When she comes into season, she is taken out for her final test: joining a wild pride. Despite initially being attacked, Elsa is accepted into a pride much to Joy and George’s relief.

A year later, the Adamsons return to Kenya in search of Elsa. They are delighted to discover that she has thrived as a wild lion and is now a mother to three cubs. However, Joy and George decide to let the cubs remain wild instead of hand-rearing them as they did with Elsa and her sisters.


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

Born Free received critical acclaim. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 88% of 17 film critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 7.1 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]


Award Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
Academy Awards Best Original Music Score John Barry Won [8]
Best Song "Born Free"
Music by John Barry;
Lyrics by Don Black
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures James Hill Nominated [9]
Genesis Awards Classic Film Award Won
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated [10]
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Virginia McKenna Nominated
Best Original Song – Motion Picture "Born Free"
Music by John Barry;
Lyrics by Don Black
Grammy Awards Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or a Television Show John Berry Nominated [11]
Laurel Awards Sleeper of the Year Won
Top Female Dramatic Performance Virginia McKenna 5th Place
Top Song "Born Free"
Music by John Barry;
Lyrics by Don Black
5th Place
National Board of Review Awards Top Ten Films 2nd Place [12]

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

Sequels and spinoffs

The book Born Free (1960) was followed by two other books, Living Free (1961) and Forever Free (1963). A film sequel titled Living Free was directed by Jack Couffer and released in 1972. 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 although the film was not as well-received as its predecessor.

A documentary follow-up to Born Free, titled The Lions Are Free, was directed by James Hill and Bill Travers and 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, titled Born Free, starring Diana Muldaur and Gary Collins as Joy and George Adamson. The series was later followed by the 1996 television film Born Free: A New Adventure directed by Tommy Lee Wallace and starring Linda Purl and Chris Noth. Joy and George Adamson do not appear as the main characters in the story. It spawned a TV series in 1998, but none of the episodes aired in the U.S.

To Walk with Lions (1999), directed by Carl Schultz, 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.

On 28th September 2010 BBC Four ran a number of programs to mark the 50th anniversary of the publishing of the book, Born Free.[15] These included a new one hour documentary entitled 'The Born Free Legacy'.[16] It explores the story behind the book 'Born Free' about the lives of Joy and George Adamson with the orphaned lion cub Elsa. It then looks at the huge impact the book, and the subsequent 1966 movie had on the growing wildlife conservation movement. It includes archive footage and clips of interviews with the Adamson's as well as various contributions from people including Virginia McKenna, Tony Fitzjohn (George Adamson's long time assistant) and Sir David Attenborough.

On 1st February 2011 the long running BBC series Natural World broadcast episode 10 of series 29 which was entitled 'Elsa: The Lioness that Changed the World'.[17] This episode, narrated by actor Richard Armitage, looked back at Elsa's life and legacy, and the work done by George Adamson to rehabilitate lions into the wild following the making of the Born Free film. [18] A slightly shortened version of this episode, this time narrated by the conservationist Chris Morgan, under the title Elsa's Legacy: The Born Free Story was also shown as part of the Nature TV series , released on PBS stations in January 2011.[19]

See also


  1. ^ Champlin, C. (10 October 1966). "Foreman hopes to reverse runaway". Los Angeles Times. ProQuest 155553672.
  2. ^ "Big Rental Pictures of 1966", Variety, 4 January 1967 p. 8
  3. ^ Bibliography – BooksFilmsMovies
  4. ^ Time Inc (28 November 1969), "A 'Born Free' Star Is Saved From Freedom", Life, Time Inc, pp. 47, 48
  5. ^ "Born Free". Flixster. Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 21 September 2023.
  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". The Times. London, England. 31 December 1966.
  8. ^ "The 39th Academy Awards (1967) Nominees and Winners". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Archived from the original on 10 November 2014. Retrieved 4 September 2011.
  9. ^ "19th DGA Awards". Directors Guild of America Awards. Retrieved 3 June 2021.
  10. ^ "Born Free". Golden Globe Awards. Retrieved 3 June 2021.
  11. ^ "9th Annual GRAMMY Awards". Grammy Awards. Retrieved 23 March 2024.
  12. ^ "1966 Award Winners". National Board of Review. Retrieved 22 March 2024.
  13. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 6 August 2016.
  14. ^ "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 6 August 2016.
  15. ^ "BBC4 Icon Films Commission" (PDF). Retrieved 16 June 2024.
  16. ^ "The Born Free Legacy".
  17. ^ "Natural World series 29 Ep10 - Elsa: The Lioness that Changed the World".
  18. ^ Armitage, Richard. "Elsa: The Lioness that changed the World". Retrieved 9 June 2024.
  19. ^ 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.