From 20th Century Fox
Directed by Jack Cardiff
Maybe you caught this film on TCM just a few weeks back during a tribute to British cinematographer and director Jack Cardiff. I am pretty sure it was the first time the film was shown on my favorite channel. Jack Cardiff was a longtime cameraman whose career went back to silent days and he was renowned for his exquisite use of color. One only needs to see Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) to see how brilliant the man was with a camera and with color. He also produced astonishing images in films such as The African Queen (1951), The Barefoot Contessa 1954), War and Peace (1956) and Fanny (1961), among many others.
The Lion is my favorite Cardiff directorial effort. It was based on a french novel although, as is often the case when a novel is transferred to the screen, there were some changes. The film was never more than a pleasant little African drama to many but it raced onto my favorites list right away. The other day my partner looked over the entire list of 50 and asked whether The Lion shouldn't have been further up on the list. I said that it was up there at one time but so many other films have knocked it down... and yes, yes, some clearly better films. But I have such a soft spot for this one.
A Cardiff favorite, Trevor Howard, was added to the cast (he had worked with Holden earlier in 1958's The Key), as was 11-year old Pamela Franklin. (The English Franklin played the daughter of the French Capucine and the American Holden... you gotta love the movies!) Also hired was the very American title star, Zamba, hired to play King, a wild African lion raised by Franklin and now on his own but still enjoying her companionship.
It is that companionship that compels the girl's mother to ask her ex-husband (Holden) to come to Kenya and renew his long-ago relationship with their daughter and observe her with the lion and with Africa in general, which, as the mother says, has bewitched her. (Africa also bewitched Holden in real-life as a result of this film; he partnered with others to establish a wildlife conservation preserve called the Mount Kenya Safari Club.) When the girl meets Holden, he asks her if she knows who he is and she says, "You used to be my father."
Franklin now has a step-father (Howard) who runs a game preserve. He has a wonderful relationship with his stepdaughter, a bit of a chilly marriage with Capucine and much concern about Holden's presence.
Holden soon realizes his ex-wife is right; their daughter needs to consider Africa as a good experience that needs to pass. They agree that Holden will take the girl with him back to civilization but how easy will this be? Well, that is the part we won't divulge but suffice it to say that one girl, three adults and one very large lion will all be put through their paces before that little plane soars into the African skies.
Young Franklin and King are the ones to watch here. They are given the most to do and both display sassy acting chops (if you'll pardon that expression). Two things that always stand out in African movies are the photography and the musical score and they do not disappoint here... Ted Scaife handling the lens and Malcolm Arnold leading the orchestra.
Zamba made his silver screen debut in this film. At four months of age he came into the loving care of Ralph Helfer, animal trainer and behavoirist who ran Africa, U.S.A. Ralph wrote about his life and Zamba, who went on to make many other movies, in the book Zamba: The True Story of the Greatest Lion That Ever Lived (Harper-Collins, 2006). Part of my immense interest in wild animals on the screen is how they take a supposedly trained large cat like this one and put him into situations where he is ferocious and attacks people and then rolls around on the ground with an 11-year old girl. Absolutely amazing.
I loved The Lion. Enjoy some scenes from it with African music to listen to: