Monday, December 28, 2020

Even Elsa's Cute Cubs Can't Redeem an Unnecessary Sequel

Elsa and Joy (Susan Hampshire)
Although Joy Adamson's book Born Free topped the bestseller charts in 1960, no one anticipated that the 1966 film adaptation would become a huge hit. With a British cast mostly unfamiliar to American audiences, the movie captured the hearts of moviegoers worldwide with its true-life tale of how Adamson and her husband raised a female lion cub and set her free. Adamson followed her book with several sequels about Elsa the Lioness and her cubs--so it was inevitable that a follow-up film would be made, too.

Released in 1972, Living Free opens with a lengthy recap of what happened in the first film (and even incorporates snippets of John Barry's Oscar-winning score). Born Free ended with the Adamsons successfully releasing the domesticated Elsa into the wilds of Africa. A year later, when they returned to the spot where they last saw Elsa, she introduced them to her three cubs.

Two of Elsa's cubs.
That happy ending, though, gives way to sadness in Living Free when Elsa dies unexpectedly due to an illness. Her hungry orphaned cubs--Jespah, Gop, and Little Elsa--start killing livestock belonging to the local tribes. George finds an animal preserve willing to take the cubs, but first he and Joy have to capture them. Their efforts to do that comprise the strongest scenes in Living Free.

As a sequel to Born Free, Living Free leaves a lot to be desired. Elsa's frisky cubs are adorable, but one never gets to know them. In the first film, we see Elsa grow up, bond with the Adamsons, and struggle to adapt to the wild. She was a full-fledged character whereas Jespah, Gop, and Little Elsa are just cute animals.

I can only think of one reason for the lengthy recap of Born Free at the beginning of Living Free: Without it, the 90-minute running time would not have been sufficient for a feature film. It adds nothing to the narrative and I think it's safe to assume that the majority of people who went to see Living Free knew the story of Elsa.

Composer John Barry won Oscars for his score for Born Free and for the title song with lyrics by Don Black. Apparently, he was too expensive or unavailable for the sequel. As a result, viewers have to listen to the cringe-worthy Living Free title song performed by Julie Budd. I had never hear of her, but she is still performing live shows as of 2018; here's a link to her web site.

Susan Hampshire as Joy Adamson.
The two human stars of Living Free, Susan Hampshire and Nigel Davenport, do what they can with their underwritten parts. I became a Susan Hampshire admirer fan after watching her fierce performances in the miniseries The Pallisers and The First Churchills. Alas, she seems miscast as Joy Adamson, whose steely determination to do right by Elsa dominated the original film.

Incidentally, the plot to Living Free is not from Adamson's book of the same name, but rather her third book Forever Free. There have been several other films about the Adamsons, to include To Walk With Lions (1999), starring Richard Harris as George. Diana Muldaur and Gary Collins played the Adamsons in a short-lived Born Free TV series in 1974.


  1. Julie Budd! Now there is someone I haven't thought of in a long time. Nice to know she's still doing her thing.

    I don't even remember Living Free. If I saw it, it disappeared as quick as a ninety-minute run time. Too often, movie makers look to recreate success instead of creating success.

  2. I don't remember this one at all, although I do remember a local TV station playing the original film quite a bit – it was one of the few films we were allowed to watch as kids. I'll have to find the original film, then watch this one as a "chaser".