Sometimes the historical success of a film rests solely on its music, at least with us film score fans. Such is the case with BORN FREE. Based on naturalist Joy Adamson’s bestselling book, the film chronicles the African adventures of Joy (Virginia McKenna) and her husband George (Bill Travers), including bringing up a lioness cub. Because of the film’s episodic nature, it lacks much of a dramatic drive. But John Barry’s Oscar-winning song and score enrich the African vistas.
Barry’s innocent, childlike approach to the score was far different than director James Hill’s more grandiose hopes. Thankfully producer Carl Foreman backed the composer in his decision. What emerged was an instantly classic main theme and title song and a fine score that supports the rather tepid film much better than it deserves.
Barry composed and orchestrated over an hour’s worth of music. He augmented the orchestra with African percussion and prominently featured two marimbas, which provide much of the “African” feel to the score.
Once Barry had his famous theme, he stated, “It was theme-and-variation taken to the nth degree. It brings all of the film together.” The two-note motif (the words “born free” in the title song) in the brass makes a grand, simple statement backed up by the log drum and marimbas. The waltz and variations that accompany Elsa at play is one of the musical highpoints of the score.
But not everything revolves around the famous theme. There is danger surrounding the hunting motif, and a somber theme in the strings and oboe accompany the death of the hyrax.
If the director’s displeasure wasn’t enough, the score recording sessions went poorly and mistakes were made. When Barry pointed this out to Foreman, he was told, “Don’t worry, there will be a lion roaring over it.”
With a soundtrack LP in the works, Barry re-recorded the score, which we all know as the beloved soundtrack album. “I remember when I finished that score,” he said, “it was like the happiest day of my life. I was delighted to be away from it.” In fact, when he was awakened in England after winning his two Oscars, “I was amazed to have won two for something about which I’d been so unhappy.” In addition to the award recognition, the royalty checks must have helped assuage the lingering unpleasant memories. The popular tune has since been recorded by more than 600 artists.