Friday, July 24

Virginia McKenna & Bill Travers

I have wondered now and then over the last half century how many people were as taken in by Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna as I was when we saw them in 1966 in Born Free.  She was very pretty, controlled, strong, soft-spoken and every inch a lady.  He was handsome and professorial, slow to burn, with a stiff upper lip, let's-just-carry-on sort of demeanor.  Did I mention they were British?

It was a movie I was dying to see.  I read all three books by wildlife welfare preservationist Joy Adamson.  The first, Born Free, published in 1960, was the story of the Adamsons' (husband George was a game warden) raising of an orphaned lion cub, Elsa, into adulthood and then training her to live in the wild.  The following year came Living Free, which focused on Elsa and her cubs in the wild.  The final installment, Forever Free, was published in 1962, and concerned the raising and release of the cubs after Elsa's death. 

I followed the film's progress as best I could in those days.  I managed to see it several times in the theater, including staying over for a second showing the first time.  There was never any doubt in anyone's mind that it would be a hit, but one wonders if they foresaw the massive world-wide hit it would become.  For me, it had at its center a lion and of course there was my ever-present excitement about Africa.  I guess I did not reckon on how taken I was going to be with Mr. and Mrs. Travers.  To me, they absolutely inhabited the souls of the Adamsons... their acting so pure and natural.  And really, how often has it been that married actors have played real-life marrieds?

No matter how they looked in their youth or how they may have changed in the years after the film, the above picture is how I will always remember Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna.  (Y'know, he grew that beard for the film and basically never shaved it off.)

She was born in London in 1931 to an auctioneer father and a mother who pursued showbiz in whatever way she could, including becoming a music hall performer, a composer and a pianist.  By the time of the Blitz, the now-divorced mother and her daughter moved to South Africa where they lived for six years.  When she returned to England, she developed her love of acting in school plays.  While training at a couple of London dramatic schools, she began appearing in legitimate plays.  She was a natural actress and possessed a radiance that caught the fancy of many.  In a short time she was doing television in Britain and of course then came films.

The Cruel Sea (1953) was about men in WWII from a more personal viewpoint.  While McKenna made her first noteworthy film and was duly noticed, it is more important because of her marriage to one of its players, Denholm Elliott.  While acknowledging his bisexuality, she's not said, to my knowledge, if she was aware of it before marriage.  She has said that she knew there was no prospect of a future in the marriage and she divorced him after three years.

In 1955 she and Dirk Bogarde made the rather routine Simba.  It returned her to Africa as an adult and she loved it.  It affirmed her love of wild animals that would increase again and again as she made Born Free.  It may also be responsible for getting her the role in the film.  Both she and Travers would later say that they had no idea why someone thought of them to play the Adamsons.

McKenna had a great year in 1956, professionally and personally.  She made another WWII film, the very good A Town Called Alice.  A love story with Peter Finch was played out as they portrayed refugees in between captors.  She was becoming most effective at playing the seemingly fragile woman who, in fact, was anything but.  That would be put to particularly good use two years later in the second of her signature roles.

In the meantime, a few months after divorcing Elliott, she married Bill Travers.  (Lucky girl... lucky guy.)  Though he was unhappily married as well, they began seeing one another during 1956 as they made back-to-back films.

Bill Travers was born in Sunderland, England, in 1922 into a showbiz family.  His father managed a theater and his sister, Linden, was a stage and film actress.  At 18 he enlisted in the British army and was sent to India.  (He would remember the experience well when he would later work in the same location, in the same army, on Bhowani Junction.)  Once he was promoted to major, he was sent to Malaysia and was responsible for training the resistance movement. 

Out of the service and back in London, he began acting on the British stage and a year later made his first films... The Browning Version, Romeo and Juliet and the first film I saw him in, Footsteps in the Fog (1955).  It starred Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons (she is his blackmailing maid and Travers was an attorney). That same year in Britain he made Wee Georgie and his role as a giant of a man (Travers was, in fact, 6'6") who became Britain's hammer-throwing champion put him on the movie star map.

MGM took notice, as they did with many British stars during a time when England was rather ignoring its film industry.  I thought he was wonderful in Bhowani Junction, alongside Granger and Ava Gardner.  But I liken Travers to Brits like Richard Todd and Michael Rennie and a few others who came stateside for the big Hollywood career that never really happened. 

The remainder of the year was tied up with those back-to-back '56 films with McKenna, Big Time Operators and The Barretts of Wimpole Street, both released in 1957.  The former, also called The Smallest Show on Earth, was a slight comedy about young marrieds who inherit an old theater with Peter Sellers and Margaret Rutherford hanging about.  In the latter he played poet Robert Browning to Jennifer Jones's Elizabeth Barrett.  John Gielgud was the tyrannical father and McKenna played Elizabeth's sister.  It was my introduction to McKenna in a film I much admired.

Travers and Eleanor Parker did the best they could in The Seventh Sin (1957), based on Maugham's The Painted Veil that once starred Garbo and would later star Naomi Watts.  Wow, there's a trio.  McKenna fared much better in 1958 with that second signature role, Carve Her Name with Pride.  I recently added it to my library.  The story of spirited Violette Szabo who was an SOE (Special Operations Executive) during WWII put McKenna at the top of her form, probably the best acting she ever pulled off.  For years afterwards, McKenna attended events honoring Szabo or the SOE. 

Together in 1958 the couple made Storm over Jamaica, a beautiful-to-look-at but ultimately dreary account of shenanigans at a private school.  In 1961 they appeared together in Two Living, One Dead, about a post office robbery and murder and the effect it has on three employees.  Until 1965, McKenna didn't work at all and Travers did mainly television.

He had just completed an American western, Duel at Diablo, with James Garner and Sidney Poitier, a rousing but routine cavalry-v.s.-the-Indians western but it had not been released when a phone call came.  The fact that for several years neither had exactly made a splash on the big screen was behind their combined surprise at being signed for the lead roles in Born Free.  The other side of the coin is that there was plenty of evidence that they worked well together and Columbia Pictures thought they could be made to resemble the real Joy and George Adamson.

The real Adamsons with the reel Adamsons

Travers and McKenna would later co-write a book about their experiences, called On Playing with Lions.  (I'm going to look for a copy.)  Without question Born Free changed their lives.  Both devoted their lives to animal welfare with a decided leaning toward keeping animals out of zoos.  Nothing meant more to them.  The screen didn't fire up their passions as much as this cause and they worked less as actors.

In 1969 they performed together in Ring of Bright Water.  This time it was about an otter... yes, I said an otter.  It concerned a London man who stumbles across one in a pet shop and moves with it to the Scottish countryside.  McKenna is a local doctor.  It worked. 

The same year they filmed An Elephant Called Slowly (McKenna knows she's mostly associated with lions but swears all wild animals are of a concern to her) and they came to love the title star.  When husband and wife learned the pachyderm would be given to Queen Elizabeth as a present, they unsuccessfully campaigned to have it stopped and the royals, in turn, gave it to a zoo.  It didn't stop the Travers' who finally got it worked out that the elephant would be sent to a sanctuary.  But a botched attempt to drug her, crate her and move her resulted in her death.  The Travers' were devastated but what resulted was the Zoo Check Campaign which turned into the Born Free Foundation.  Laws would be changed involving animals in zoos.

To further their animals rights causes, they made two documentaries... The Lions Are Free in 1969 and Christian the Lion in 1971.  McKenna would go on to write several books, some on animals, some not.  In 2009 her autobiography was published.  She would act and sing on the stage, do television movies and guest roles and even make a few films.  She still works to this day at 84 years old.

By all accounts the McKenna-Travers marriage was a good one.  They enjoyed one another and being together and understood one another instinctively.  Perhaps instinct improves when one spends so much time among wild creatures.  They had four children during their 37-year marriage.  Bill Travers died in his sleep in 1994 at age 74.  Today, one of his sons heads the Born Free Foundation.

Born Free didn't appear as one of my 50 Favorite Films nor did it show up under the Good 60s Films banner and yet it is a film I do treasure.  I simply love good animal stories and this is one of the very best.  I also knew that before I move out of the 60s, I had to write about Bill and Virginia because I quite liked them and respected their animal rights work.  To avoid two similar stories,  we put it all together here. 

Next posting:
A good 60s film


  1. Thank you. Lots of info packed in here. I love this couple. Glad I chanced upon your website. Well done. Best from San Diego, CA

  2. Ginny, I am so glad you happened upon this website, too, and took the time to write and say so. Hope you find more stuff here to your liking... or even not liking... and that you will write and tell me. Thank you.