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BORN FREE – John Barry


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Producers Carl Forman, Sam Jaffe and Paul Radin came across the book “Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds” (1960) by renowned naturalist Joy Adamson, and believed her heart-warming tale could be brought to the big screen. They purchased the film rights and hired screenwriter Lester Cole to forge the screenplay. For the cast, Director James Hill brought in veteran British actors Virginia McKenna (Joy Adamson) and Bill Travers (George Adamson) to lead an ensemble, which included Geoffrey Keen (John Kendall), Peter Lukoye (Nuru), Surya Patel (the Doctor) and Geoffrey Best as (Watson).

The story is set in northern Kenya where George Adamson serves as senior Game Warden for the expansive regional park. It comes to pass that one day during his rounds he is cornered and forced to kill a lioness out of self-defense. He then discovers the reason for her attack, her three cubs, and so decides to bring them home with him, understanding that they would not survive in the wild without their mother. The Adamsons nuture the three cubs to young lionhood, and then send the two eldest of the siblings to the Rotterdam Zoo. They however retain Elsa (the runt of the litter), with whom Joy has bonded emotionally. Regretfully tragedy strikes when a playful Elsa is held responsible for causing an elephant stampede, which wreaks havoc with a local village, John Kendall, Adamson’s boss gives the couple a three-month ultimatum; restore Elsa to the wild, or send her to a zoo. Joy resolves to not allow Elsa to suffer a caged life in captivity, and so commits to re-introducing Elsa to her destiny – a wild and free lion in the reserve. After many setbacks, Joy at last succeeds, and with trepidation, and a breaking heart, releases Elsa to the wild. The Adamsons return to England, yet a year later journey back to Kenya for a week, hoping to find Elsa. Well we have the happiest of endings when they discover Elsa, who has not forgotten them, now the proud mother of three cubs! The film resonated with the public and also received critical acclaim, securing two Academy Award Nominations for Best Song and Best Original Score, winning both.

John Barry was hired to score the film, but immediately encountered creative differences with Director Hill’s vision. Hill saw his film as a magnificent tale and so instructed Barry to provide a grand, sweeping and grandiose soundscape. Barry however did not interpret the film in this manner, instead seeing the story as an intimate family driven drama. He therefore scored the film in a manner that was almost Disney-like in its sensibilities, warm, intimate, playful and child-like. This brought about much rancor with Hill who was insistent, yet Barry who was well known for his stubbornness, would not bend to his will. When producer Carl Foreman intervened and supported Barry with his approach, the relationship with Hill became fractured and unsalvageable. Indeed Hill never saw the project to completion with Tom McGowan taking the reigns at the end when the score was recorded.

Barry chose to underpin the film with one primary identity, the Born Free Theme, whose presence is manifest in countless scenes. The theme is one of his finest and one that has become iconic in film score art. In its song form (lyrics by Don Black), is where the theme has passed unto legend with over 600 recordings by artists from around the world. The Main Title presents its grandest articulation with heraldic horns nobile and swirling strings with a contrapuntal percussive line. Barry also incorporated several African nativist instruments so as to provide the ethnic colors necessary to support the film’s setting. The carefree Play Theme has a child-like sensibility and flows like a bubbling stream carried by woodwinds and xylophone. Its B Phrase is comic and playfully discordant, fully capturing the havoc born of the cubs play. Worth noting, is that “Born Free” provided Barry with his first two Oscar wins, Best Original Score, and Best Original Song, the first time an Englishman had won the simultaneously.

“Main Title – Born Free” is the score’s highlight and opens grandly atop the Born Free Theme, which is adorned with nativist drum accents. It begins with the Columbia logo and supports the roll of the opening credits over a panorama of the vast Kenyan savannah vistas, with wondrous scenes of native wild life. This theme, in its purest form is really a wordless song for orchestra. The warmth and nobility of the horns both stir and invite, and when the strings move to the forefront we bear witness to Barry’s supreme gift for iconic melody. This melody in my judgment perfectly captures the film’s emotional core. Bravo! “The Hunt” offers the Main Theme with muted French horns, strings and gentile woodwinds as we see Joy setting up her easel to paint aside a beautiful pond. We shift scenes to George who is on safari hunting for a man-eating lion and Barry builds tension with repeating horn counters and unsettling xylophone accents and drums. Sharp horn declarations inform us of the shooting of both the male and then female lions. This multi-scenic cue perfectly supported the film’s narrative.

“Feeding Time” provides a heart-warming cue. We open with strings doloroso offering tender phrasing of the Main Theme as Joy and George struggle to find a milk formula that the cubs will eat. Eventually formula 17 entices Elsa and saves the day for the cubs. “Elsa At Play” is a score highlight where Barry introduces his Play Theme, which interplays with the Main Theme. We see an extended montage of Elsa playing and exploring her new home, and then the adventures and havoc caused by the cubs play. Wondrous strings giocoso carry us atop the Main Theme as we see Elsa explore and then playing with her siblings playing. At 1:04 a horn bridge leads us into a full rendering of the Play Theme, as the cubs play comically, before returning to the Main Theme. This is a wonderful extended cue, which abounds with joy, happiness and playful fun! Barry perfectly captured the film’s narrative and warms our hearts.!

“Playtime” features the cubs getting into the house and wreaking havoc as everyone chases them down! Barry provides a new melody, which is kindred in its expression to that of the Main Theme. It is more tender, gentile and prances to and fro with a carefree playfulness. Again Barry’s music perfectly captures the film’s imagery. “The Death Of Pati” reveals Joy coming home and being greeted by the news that her beloved pet Pati, a rock hyrax, had died. Barry provides an elegiac cue, which perfectly captures Joy’s grief. At 2:21 we segue in a scene change and see Joy out exploring and playing with Elsa, carried by a delightful joining of woodwinds and xylophone. A horn stinger supports a confrontation with a cobra, as Elsa saves Joys life. “Killing At Kiunga” offers a somber rendering of the Main Theme as George is once more dispatched to kill a man-killing Lion at the costal town of Kuniga.

“Waiting For Joy” is a comic cue, which supports George at home alone with Elsa, who is relentless in her efforts to play with him. Barry provides a comedic if not silly tuba line, which perfectly captures the scene. At 1:24 we scene change atop references of the Main Theme, and we see Elsa once again sitting outside the ranch in a vigil, awaiting Joy’s return. “Holiday With Elsa” is a wonderful cue and score highlight. It reveals George, Joy and Elsa on holiday at the beach, all playing and having great fun. Barry supports their fun playfully with delightful melody kindred to the Main Theme, which offers interplay. What a perfect marriage of music and film! “Elephant Stampede” lacks a melodic core, yet is never the less successful in supporting its scene. We see a playful Elsa causing an elephant stampede, which damages a local village. Repeating horn phrases with percussive support perfectly capture the power of the behemoths and the damage unleashed by their stampede.

“The New Reserve” opens sadly as the Head Warden John Kendall informs George and Joy that Elsa cannot stay as she is being blamed for the damage. He gives them three months and Joy convinces them to let her try to return Elsa to the wild. They travel 350 miles away to a new reserve where they begin her re-acclimation. We open with fragmentary references to the Main Theme, which finally coalesces into a full statement at 1:43. It perfectly supports their travels with the wonderful vistas. In “Flirtation” George and Joy attempt to introduce Elsa to a solitary male. The introduction is unsuccessful as all Elsa wants to do with him is play like a cub, which earns his consternation. Barry supports the encounter with a dance-like rhythmic line, which offers both comedy and playfulness. We conclude nicely on the Main Theme. “Abandoning Elsa” reveals Joy abandoning Elsa to her fate. A prelude by oboe deoloroso ushers in a plaintive rendering of the Main Theme, which informs us of Joy’s anxiety, and pain of separation. At 1:18 the theme blossoms yet its progress is severed by a dark finality, as we are unsure of Elsa’s fate.

In “Elsa’s Kill” Elsa achieves her first kill in the wild, a wart hog, and a crucial milestone necessary for survival. Barry provides an ambient cue adorned with African colors of dark drums, swirling strings and horn declarations, which draws inspiration from the Main Theme. “Fight Of The Lioness” offers Elsa’s ultimate test – holding her own against another lioness. We open pensively with a slowly rising crescendo, which Barry accents with African ethnic colors. We culminate with a satisfying victory by Elsa. “Wild And Free” reveals Joy and George parting with Elsa, confident that they have done the right thing, and believing that she will survive. Barry supports the parting with a heartfelt rendering of the Main Theme, which perfectly supports the moment.

In “Reunion – Born Free” Joy and George return a year later from England for a week in hope of seeing Elsa. The last day has come, they do not found her, and they despair. Yet as they prepare to depart camp Elsa appears with her three cubs and a joyous reunion occurs. After a lengthy ambient introduction Barry supports the moment with a wonderful heartfelt rending of the Main Theme, which ends in a flourish and brings our journey to a very satisfying conclusion. This CD departs from the actual ending of the film, which segues into the song “Born Free”, sung by Matt Monro. It plays over the closing credits and for me offers one of the finest songs in film score art. I have embedded a YouTube link for this wonderful song, which is absent from the CD, but for which I feel is necessary to fully appreciate Barry’s score: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISWOrI0WaLs

I would like to thank Robert Townson and Varese Sarabande for this marvelous re-recording. The sound quality is superb, and once again affirms their commitment to excellence. Folks this score features one of film score art’s most iconic melodies, one that shines both as an orchestral statement as well as a song. The fact that over 600 different artists have recorded the song offers testimony to Barry’s genius. His capacity to capture with melody a film’s emotional core is on full display here, and illustrative of his talent. I believe this intimate score is worthy of its Academy Award and rightfully should take its place in your collection.

Buy the Born Free soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title – Born Free (2:52)
  • The Hunt (3:17)
  • Feeding Time (1:57)
  • Elsa at Play (5:29)
  • Playtime (3:22)
  • The Death of Pati (3:40)
  • Killing at Kiunga (2:34)
  • Waiting for Joy (2:16)
  • Holiday With Elsa (4:04)
  • Elephant Stampede (2:40)
  • The New Reserve (3:41)
  • Flirtation (3:20)
  • Abandoning Elsa (1:54)
  • Elsa’s Kill (0:46)
  • Fight of the Lioness (2:50)
  • Wild and Free (1:42)
  • Reunion – Born Free (6:20)

Running Time: 52 minutes 44 seconds

Varese Sarabande 302-066-084 (1966/2000)

Music composed by John Barry. Performed by The Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Conducted by Frederic Talgorn. Score produced by John Barry. Album produced by Robert Townson.

  1. Travis
    September 11, 2020 at 9:04 pm

    Thank you for the review Craig! I just discovered this beautiful score today and your write up provided a good summary of the context as well as some things to listen for in the score. You were right about seeking out the song too. Gorgeous. You can’t help but feel good listening to it. My best to you.

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