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1 item from 1999

Film review: 'To Walk With Lions'

20 September 1999 | The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News | See recent The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News news »

The greatest lion of them all in the African adventure "To Walk With Lions" is Richard Harris. Playing George Adamson, the English expatriate who spent the majority of his adult life rehabilitating lions to be reintroduced into the African wild, Harris turns himself into a lion.

Harris' long white hair and beard -- looking remarkably like Adamson -- quiet dignity, lion bellows and obstinate refusal to bend to anyone else's will convinces us and his lions that he is one of them. Indeed, he is their leader.

A rousing, old-fashioned (in that best meaning of that term) tale of human courage, this film has come to the Toronto International Film Festival to seek distribution after a debut at the Seattle Film Festival. Mainly financed by Canadian producer Pieter Kroonenburg's GFT Kingsborough Films, "Lions" does present a marketing challenge. Its willingness to look on the gamy side of life certainly prevents its promotion as Disney-type kids fare.

But there are so many other hooks here -- a robust African yarn, terrific performances, the magnificent Kenyan countryside lovingly shot by Jean Lepine and a theme of animal conservation that gets more timely with each passing year -- that an ambitious distributor could make an impact with this film not only theatrically but in ancillary markets.

To call this a sequel to "Born Free" misrepresents both films made in different times for different audiences. "Born Free", made in 1966, showed how George and his wife Joy Adamson were able to return Elsa the lioness to the wild. It was a fairly benign story accompanied by a best-selling song. The new film tells of the uneasy friendship between George Adamson and a wild, young English ex-pat Tony Fitzjohn (John Michie), who quite accidentally gets hired to work at Adamson's Kora game compound.

A hard-drinking womanizer who lives an unprincipled and irresponsible life, Fitzjohn accepts the job only because he's desperate for a few bob. Uneasy around the lions, Fitzjohn is ready to bolt at a moment's notice. But living with George and his antisocial brother Terence (Ian Bannen), who prefers elephants to lions, Fitzjohn grows to admire that which he fears. Besides, plenty of women and booze turn up at Kora to keep him happy.

Hungarian-born Australian director Carl Schultz ("Careful, He Might Hear You") neatly balances the rich characters and the compelling story lines with the natural inclination to feast visually on the glorious African landscapes. The film manages to recall not only those old African melodramas Hollywood once made but also movies like "Out of Africa".

Its characters are people smitten with the land, and, the film also makes clear, people who sometimes forget whose land this is and people who sometimes care more about animals than natives.

The film begins during the 1970s and ends with Adamson's murder in 1989. Adamson's effect on Fitzjohn, who is basically Adamson's younger self, is seen in the fact that Fitzjohn now runs Tanzania's Mkomazi game reserve and spends much time traveling to raise money and the world's consciousness about the damage poachers and bandits cause in the African wild.

But the film concentrates on the human adventure as the cocky younger man learns how to work and communicate with dangerous beasts, struggles to overcome his hot temper, especially when drunk, and romances an English anthropologist (Kerry Fox), who has plenty of reasons to doubt his sincerity.

The film takes only the occasional potshot at its predecessor. Terence mocks his brother by humming the "Born Free" theme song. And the Joy Adamson who briefly turns up here (played by James Bond veteran Honor Blackman) is more a rough-around-the-edges socialite whose interest in wildlife only barely includes lions. (Reportedly, the real Joy Adamson never shared the profits from her book and movie deal with her husband's game preserve.)

Harris, puffing thoughtfully on his pipe and strolling with his lions, dominates the film as the old lion who must teach his cubs how to defend their territory. He seldom speaks above a whisper and allows his face little opportunity to betray his inner emotions.

Michie is a genuine discovery in this film. A bare-chested hunk with plenty of sex appeal and the acting moxie to go with it, Michie makes a captivating Fitzjohn, a man whose spiritual growth the movie ably charts. Nor does it hurt that Michie lived in Kenya for much of his youth and speaks Swahili.


IAC Films & Television

in association with GFT Kingsborough Films/

Studio Eight Prods./Simba Prods.

Producers: Pieter Kroonenburg, Julie Allan

Director: Carl Schultz

Screenwriters: Sharon Buckingham, Keith Ross Leckie

Executive producer: John Buchanan

Director of photography: Jean Lepine

Production designer: Michael Devine

Music: Alan Reeves

Costume designer: Suzy Belcher

Editor: Angelo Corrao



George Adamson: Richard Harris

Tony Fitzjohn: John Michie

Lucy Jackson: Kerry Fox

Terence Adamson: Ian Bannen

Maxwell: Hugh Quarshie

Joy Adamson: Honor Blackman

Victoria Andrecelli: Geraldine Chaplin

Running time -- 110 minutes

No MPAA rating


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1 item from 1999

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