Based on Joy Adamson’s bestselling book, Born Free chronicles Joy (Virginia McKenna) and her husband George’s (Bill Travers) adventures in Africa, 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 childlike and innocent 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 revolved 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, Pati.
To add to Barry’s unpleasant experience with the project, the score recording sessions went poorly and mistakes were made. When Barry pointed this out to producer Carl Foreman, he was told not to worry about it: “Don’t worry, there will be a lion roaring over it.”
With a soundtrack LP in the works, Barry rerecorded the score which is the now 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.” The tune has been so popular over the last forty years that it has since been recorded by more than 600 artists.