On a game reserve in Kenya, Joy Adamson (Virginia McKenna), wife of game warden George (Bill Travers), grew attached to a litter of lion cubs he brought home one day. Their father had been a maneater which he had been forced to shoot, but on that occasion the maneater's partner had leapt at him as well, and George had ended her life, not realising that she was defending her cubs. He felt a certain amount of guilt for that, so opted to look after the three creatures until he could find a home for them, though as far as Joy was concerned their home was right there with the Adamsons, yet that would have to change...
Born Free was a huge success in its day, both as a book, an autobiographical work by Adamson herself, and as a film, a hit around the world. Not only that, but it was a huge song as well, thanks to composer John Barry's efforts and the singing of Matt Monro (and Vic Reeves, I suppose), becoming one of the most recognisable movie themes ever; Barry seemed to recognise the power of his theme and worked it into the action at every opportunity - simply hearing that first line is enough to make grown men gaze off into the middle distance while discreetly wiping away a tear. Grown men like Barack Obama, who admitted it was the only movie which made him cry.
If that wasn't an endorsement of the production, then I don't know what was, as its reputation as one of the most moving animal films around was cemented early on. Watching it now, it's easy to see why, with its sentimental but still reserved tone, it's two very British lead characters, maintaining the stiff upper lips while letting the emotional restraint drop when the animals appeal to their softer side. Travers' George is the sensible one, the one who tells Joy that she cannot keep the lion cubs around because they are growing larger and as the damage they do to the house gets more extensive the Adamsons accept that they cannot keep them.
Well, one of the Adamsons does, as Joy is reluctant to let them out of her sight, so when George takes the maturing but nevertheless tame lions to be transported to a sanctuary, he relents and allows her to keep her favourite, the smallest one, named Elsa. Back in the sixties and into the seventies it was as if everyone on the globe had heard of Elsa the lioness, making her one of the most famous animals of all time, and the footage of the cast interacting with the trained beasts was one of the big draws of the film, even if it was not Elsa who appeared as herself, with another of the Adamsons' "pets" standing in.
But the moral factor of keeping such a wild animal in captivity, even if it is allowed to roam wherever it wants within reason, is not one which the story ignores. This is brought out when it is decided Elsa must be taken to a zoo after she worries a herd of elephants and triggers a stampede, something which mortifies Joy as she cannot imagine the lioness in a cage for the rest of her life. I'm not sure why she couldn't have been taken to a safari park, but as it is the main narrative gets going in this latter half because Joy, with George's assistance, settles for reintroducing Elsa back into the wild, something that is not as easy as it sounds due to the fact that the lioness has never caught her own food before, and will seem like an alien to any pride they try to place her in. Will Elsa survive? Rest assured, there is a happy ending, and if Born Free relies too heavily on the novelty of its animal antics, it earned its place in the hearts of its fans.