Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Lion: King of the Beasts and the Silver Screen

By Steve Herte

I can anticipate the first question: Why write about lion movies, that is, movies featuring lions? I can only answer that it all goes back to childhood. Animals always fascinated me; as a child I was surrounded by the stuffed representations relatives gave me as crib and later bedmates. However, as I grew older, it was the big cats that caught my attention. And of the big cats, the most majestic is the lion. I was always glued to the television set whenever a wildlife show was on, and when the show featured lions, I was happier than a pig in mud.

There is something indefinably regal about the lion, and I’m not alone in that opinion. The philosopher Nietzsche was also fascinated with the lion, referring to it as the “blond beast” in his writings. (Many readers thought he was referring to Aryans, but it was indeed the lion, an animal Nietzsche revered for its strength.) Frankly, ever since I learned as a teenager that, according to the horoscope, I was a born under the sign of Leo (and at the time, I liked what I read about the sign as the characteristics all applied to me),  I have been collecting all things leonine. I have figurines in every medium from lead crystal to bubblegum, calendars, clothing, wall hangings, computer icons and sound effects, sun catchers and tableware, even a Pez dispenser, all of them representations of lions. When I visited Las Vegas, I stayed at the MGM Grand and was privileged to see Cowboy – perhaps the great great grandson (maybe another great is needed) of Leo the famous MGM lion who roared at the beginning of every film.

I’ve always made it a point to see any movie including or featuring lions, and was surprised that Kitty-cat did not have a cameo in the most recent Addams Family movie. When it was suggested that I compile a list of lion movies, I pounced on the opportunity, so presented here are my top 10 movies about or featuring lions. It was impossible to rank them from one to 10 because they are all great to me (especially the two that are actually trilogies).

Born Free (Columbia, 1966): A true story adaptation of the book by Joy Adamson about Elsa the lioness, an orphaned female cub raised to maturity by Adamson, but who must be trained to return to the wild. This one is a two-handkerchief movie that had me singing its theme song long after it left the theaters. I considered making it my personal theme song for a while, and Andy Williams performed it beautifully. The film is well made and follows the book (which I read later) pretty closely. Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers are excellent as Joy and George Adamson.

The Chronicles of Narnia (Buena Vista, 2005-2010): The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), Prince Caspian (2008), and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader  (2010): A wonderful adaptation of author C. S. Lewis’ series of fantasy novels set in the fictional realm of Narnia. Four siblings play hide-and-seek in a big house when the youngest, Lucy (Georgie Henley) hides in a wardrobe closet that opens onto the parallel universe of Narnia where the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) rules and has made winter the only season. She convinces her brothers Peter (William Moseley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and her sister Susan (Anna Popplewell) to join her in Narnia where they have adventures with talking animals, meet the enormous lion Aslan (who brings back the Spring to Narnia with the melodious baritone voice of Liam Neeson) and eventually become ruling kings and queens.

My favorite quote from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader spoken to Lucy by Aslan: “Things never happen the same way twice, dear one.”

The Ghost and the Darkness (Paramount, 1996): The notorious “Man-eaters of Tsavo” have been the subject of quite a few movies. This movie is a remake of Bwana Devil (U.A., 1952), the first American movie to be photographed in 3-D and color. It starred Robert Stack as Bob Heyward, the chief engineer on the East African railway project, who must go after the lions that have been killing off his workers.

The Ghost and the Darkness follows the same plot: A railway line is being constructed by the British to facilitate transport of goods between their African colonies but a pair of mane-less male lions team up against them. No matter what was done, or who was hired to rid the workers of this seemly supernatural pair, the lions evaded capture with an eerie intelligence. I found myself cheering for the lions. Before they were shot, they had killed 35 people over a nine-month period. When I saw them posed in the Field Museum in Chicago several years later, I learned that their mane-less condition was due to the thorny bush countryside in which they successfully camouflaged themselves. It had the net effect of literally tearing out their manes. This is the reason several people have mistaken them for females. Michael Douglas plays Charles Remington, the hunter hired by bridge engineer, Colonel John Henry Patterson (Val Kilmer), who finally thwarts their uncanny attacks.

The Last Lions (National Geographic, 2011): A heart-rending documentary from the husband-and-wife team of Dereck and Beverly Joubert about a female lion and her cubs as she tries to keep them fed and safe from the many dangers in the African veldt, the most dangerous being that of poachers, who have depleted the lion population from half-a-million 50 years ago to only 20,000 today. Jeremy Irons narrates. The Jouberts emphasize the threat of poachers in decimating the number of lions while noting the lion’s pride of place on the list for eco-tourists, an industry that brings in $200 billion worldwide. The Jouberts also make a strong case for both our moral duty to protect lions (as well as other big cats like leopards, tigers, cheetahs, and pumas) and the economic benefit such protection would make. It is a difficult film to watch, especially for such an animal lover as myself. I have no idea how long it took to film this movie but several of the scenes were difficult to watch because they depict in graphic detail how brutal nature can be to the vulnerable cubs. One scene in particular shows the lioness abandoning a cub whose both rear legs were broken in a wildebeest stampede, but who calls pitifully to her while dragging itself forward.

Secondhand Lions (New Line, 2003): A comedy about a great way to spend a summer vacation! Haley Joel Osment plays Walter, a young boy whose mother Mae (Kyra Sedgwick) sends him off to the country to be cared for by his two eccentric uncles Garth (Michael Caine) and Hub (Robert Duvall). The irresponsible gesture turns out to be a positive influence on his development into manhood as he befriends a full-grown male lion living in the cornfield. Needless to say he isn’t shy at the end of the movie. Don’t ask why the lion is there. It’s just fun.

Madagascar 1, 2, & 3 (Dreamworks, 2005-2012): This animated series features the adventures of Alex the lion, Melman the giraffe, Marty the zebra and Gloria the hippo (respectively voiced by Ben Stiller, David Schwimmer, Chris Rock, and Jada Pickett Smith), who are convinced by a quartet of scheming penguins to leave the safe confines of the New York metropolitan zoo to return to Africa, but are accidentally re-routed to Madagascar instead. In the second installation they all leave Madagascar and finally make it to Africa where a different set of adventures await. In the third movie the bored penguins decide to leave Africa for Europe and the four main characters chase after them to keep them out of mischief. All wind up in a traveling circus whose final destination is New York.

The Lion King (Buena Vista, 1994): This heralded animated feature concerns Simba, a cub born to reigning Lion King Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones), and who by birthright is destined to be the next Lion King. But Mufasa’s brother Scar (Jeremy Irons) conspires with hyenas to cause Mufasa’s death and convinces Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) that he was to blame for his father’s death. Simba goes into exile on his uncle’s advice while Scar takes over the pride. In exile Simba (Matthew Broderick – adult voice) meets Timon (Nathan Lane), a meerkat and his pal Pumbah (Ernie Sabella), a warthog, and lives the good life up to maturity until his childhood playmate Nala (now also mature and voiced by Moira Kelly) discovers him in the jungle. Love blossoms, and she tries to convince him to come back to Pride Rock and face Scar. But not until a celestial visitation from Mufasa does Simba return to vanquish the usurper. Throughout, the characters Rafiki (Robert Guillaume), a wise, old mandrill and adviser to Lion Kings, and Zazu (Rowan Atkinson), the harried avian care-taker and teacher of cubs, keep the film light with their comic antics.

I knew from the trailers that this movie would be, as Ed Sullivan would say, “Really big!” and would seriously augment my collection with leonine mementos, which it did. I saw the movie when it opened in Radio City Music Hall and the Broadway show in the New Amsterdam Theater while it was in previews in 1997. This resulted in two T-shirts, two baseball caps, several small figurines, a Mache sculpture and a Swarovski crystal Simba. I even went to see an exhibit of Julie Taymor’s costume designs at the World Financial Center before the Broadway show opened.

The Wild (Walt Disney Pictures, 2006): A young lion named Ryan (voiced by Greg Cipes) admires and idolizes his dad, Samson (Kiefer Sutherland) in a city zoo as he tells the tales of his exploits in “The Wild.” Ryan is accidentally shipped back to the wild and his dad, along with Bridget, a giraffe (Janeane Garofalo), Benny, a squirrel (James Belushi), Nigel, a koala (Eddie Izzard), and Larry, a snake (Richard Kind) have to go after him and bring him back. The Kicker – dad was born in captivity and knows nothing of being the King of the Jungle. They are taken captive by a herd of wildebeest led by the evil Kazar (William Shatner) who has decided not to be the prey anymore.  Both Samson and Ryan have to become the lions they really are to escape before the volcano blows.

African Cats (Disneynature, 2011): A docudrama featuring two stories – the parallel “growing up in Africa” stories of Leyla, the alpha lioness, and her single cub Mara in a pride of lions, and Sita, the cheetah (corny) with five cubs and their trials and tribulations while trying to wean their progeny. Leyla’s pride has six lionesses and one male “Fang” (he has one broken tooth and looks like a loser from the beginning, but he challenges a crocodile and wins). Across the river is Kali, an incredibly fit black-maned lion and his four sons “in their prime” (no females – can you guess where this is going?). The story shifts back and forth from Sita’s little family fending off hyenas (once unsuccessfully) and finding food, to Leyla’s injuries when kicked by a zebra and her exile from the pride when Kali and his boys take over. It’s an African tennis match, excellent photography throughout, including the expected Disney happy ending.

Samuel L. Jackson’s narration proves better than Jeremy Irons’ in The Last Lions, but he’s over-the-top dramatic and contributes several times to making a scene predictable. 

The Wizard of Oz (MGM, 1939): This movie made it into my top 10 because I could see it over and over again and still enjoy it. It’s not a “lion” movie per se, but the allegorical “Cowardly Lion” so beautifully played by Burt Lahr. Later, in 1975, the role was re-created in the Broadway Show The Wiz by Ted Ross. I admit, the concept of a lion being cowardly is distasteful but the story is a fantasy after all. When I read the book I learned of all the liberties Hollywood took with the story (ruby slippers showed up better on screen than silver slippers – corrected in The Wiz, and Glinda is introduced as the Good Witch of the North, not the South – also corrected in The Wiz) as well as the courageous deeds performed by the lion that were not included in the movie. One such instance was on the yellow brick road. In the book, the road was not always continuous and had increasingly serious gaps. At one point no one but the lion was able to jump the gap and he carried the others as he leapt across. Later, the gap was too large even for him and the Tin Woodman had to cut down a tree for them to cross. But I guess the movie would have been five hours long if all the side-stories were included.

With every Top 10 list there can also be additional movies that one might consider as runners-up. This one is no exception. In an inclusive list of “Lion Movies” these cannot be ignored. They vary in degrees of, shall we say, dignity? But with the invaluable help of my editors, I let you be the judges of their merit.

Clarence, the Cross-eyed Lion (MGM, 1965): I was 15 when I saw this comedy in the theater, but I remember it fondly. A lion unable to hunt because of its double vision is mistakenly accused of going after villagers but he is only scavenging food where he can. Dr. Marsh Tracy (Marshall Thompson) a veterinarian takes him to his study center and his daughter Paula (Cheryl Miller) adopts him. Together they foil a black market operation on transport of gorillas.

Later, the actually strabismic lion co-starred in the television show Daktari (1966-1969), a spin-off of the movie that starred Thompson and Miller in the same roles. Clarence provided many light moments to the serious business of saving animal life in Africa. The series got its title using the popularity of a John Wayne’s 1962 safari movie for Paramount, Hatari!.

The African Lion (Buena Vista, 1955): This documentary from Disney and narrated by Winston Hibler follows the three-year filming project of Alfred and Emma Milotte in Africa. Though lions figure in the movie, the bulk of the film encompasses the territory they “rule.” As with most Disney films, the narration at times tends to be too “cute” and the music tends to be overstated.

Zebra in the Kitchen (MGM, 1965): Feeling sympathy for the poor caged animals in the zoo, a young boy (Jay North) sets them free. Unfortunately the town isn’t too happy with wild animals turning up all over town. I can see why Jay got the part of Dennis the Manace. Directed by Ivan Tors and starring Martin Milner, Andy Devine, and Joyce Meadows. Not really a “lion” movie as such, but there is a lion in it.

Napoleon and Samantha (Buena Vista, 1972): Major, a former circus lion, cared for by a clown who moves to Europe is taken as a pet by two children (the title couple), and when Napoleon’s grandfather dies they refuse to let Major go. Instead they take him on a journey to a hermit friend of theirs and experience dangerous adventures along the way.

Hercules (Paramount, 2014): The latest attempt at filming a mythological hero features Dwayne Johnson in the title role. Though the hair looks good on him, the story is rather thin and vacillates between myth and reality. Of the Twelve Labors, only four are featured including the first, the killing of the Nemean Lion, which for five seconds was a great special effect. After that, Hercules must have washed the skin in hot water because it shrank severely (including the head), otherwise he never could have worn it.

The Lion (20th Century Fox, 1962): Here’s an interesting situation. Ex-wife Christine (Capucine) summons Robert Hayden (William Holden), a lawyer, all the way from America to East Africa to help raise their 11-year-old daughter, Tina (Pamela Franklin), whose best friend is a full-grown male lion named King that she’s had since it was cub. But what about hubby number two, John Bullitt (interesting name), played by Trevor Howard, who manages the game reserve they live on? We can easily imagine, especially as the love between the two ex’s rekindles.

Before Hayden arrived they were getting along well with the local tribe. But he saves the life of a dying chief left for dead by his people. A huge faux pas! The chief’s son, Oriunga (Paul Odour) has his ambition of taking over the chiefdom and marrying Tina dashed by the resurrection of his dad. Now he has to kill a lion to be chief and his sights turn to Tina’s pet. It doesn’t go well for him as Tina sics the big cat on him. Oriunga is fatally mauled, Bullitt kills the lion, and Tina turns from him to Robert as her father. With one bullet, Bullitt loses a wife and daughter as they both return to America with Robert. Hmm. Sounds like a moral. Don’t get divorced, and if you do, don’t move to Africa. That is unless you have Jack Cardiff as a director. Then all your scenery will be stunning.

Fluffy (Universal, 1965): Scientist Daniel Potter (Tony Randall) wants to prove that a wild animal can become a pet with the right training. (Okay…) His choice is Fluffy, an adult male lion. Look out suburbia! After realizing that he’s creating a mass panic with his neighbors he and Fluffy hole up in a hotel, where they meet the owner’s daughter (Shirley Jones). She’s the only one who is not intimidated by Fluffy. In fact, quite the opposite, she loves the two of them. But the fun really starts when circumstantial evidence gets Fluffy accused of man-eating and the three now find themselves on the run from the police. Not a laugh riot but a cute idea typical of the Sixties.

Pride (BBC TV movie, 2004): As I was watching this movie I was thinking, “How long did it take to make this film? Lions do not pose for you and act out a complete story.” It’s the story of a lioness cub named Suki (voiced by Kate Winslet) who leaves her pride to mate with a male across the river. She learns a lot about pride living there and eventually returns to her home pride to defend it against interlopers. Yes, they’re all real lions, but they’re speaking with the voices of Helen Mirren (Macheeba), Rupert Graves (Linus), Sean Bean (Dark), Martin Freeman (Fleck), Robbie Coltrane (James), Jim Broadbent (Eddie), and John Hurt (Harry). Matching the voices to the computer graphics allowing the lions to look like they’re talking is remarkable. That and the dangerously close photography kept the film from verging on silly.

Fearless Fagan (MGM, 1952): Based on the true story published in Life magazine in 1951 of Private Floyd C. Humeston, this story of a circus clown named Floyd Hilston (Carleton Carpenter) who raised a lion named Fagan from cub to gentle adulthood is endearing. Rather than leave his lifelong friend to a cruel lion tamer, he brings the animal with him when he’s drafted into the Army. At Fort Ord, he hides Fagan in the woods and sneaks off each day to be with him and play his favorite song, “The Loveliest Night of The Year” on the phonograph. At night, Fagan stays in Hilston’s van. His attempt to request time to find Fagan a home is dismissed as bunk by his sergeant.

When singer Abby Ames (Janet Leigh) arrives to entertain the base she has an opportunity to meet both Floyd and Fagan but her fear of Fagan makes her break her promise to Floyd and she tells Colonel Horne (Wilton Graff) and eventually, Floyd is arrested. The sergeant backs Floyd and is assigned the job of finding Fagan a home, but to no avail. Abby starts to like Floyd and, through her suggestion of publicity, the story makes front-page headlines and a nearby farm family agrees to take Fagan in. But when Fagan escapes and terrorizes the WACS in their base, they change their tune and Fagan is remanded to the lion tamer.

It’s not hard to guess what comes next. Fagan is mistreated and attacks the trainer but is injured and runs off. Only with difficulty do Floyd and Abby get him back to his cage. Floyd is hospitalized in the process and Abby takes Fagan back to Hollywood. Upon recovery, Hilston’s sergeant (Keenan Wynn) approves a leave of absence for Floyd to visit Abby and Fagan. He nearly has a heart attack when he sees a lion-skin rug on the floor but his fears are allayed when he goes out back and sees Fagan splashing in Abby’s pool.

The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (U.A., 1947): In his last appearance in a film, Harold Lloyd plays a kind of precursor to the Nutty Professor movies except he’s not a professor, just a mild-mannered laid-off bookkeeper with very little to live on. The “Diddlebock” is a cocktail that releases him from his inhibitions, and with his newfound courage, he buys a bankrupt circus. This comes with Jackie, the lion whom he brings when he tries to sell the circus to a banker. There is a particularly funny scene on the ledge of a skyscraper with Harold and his friend “Wormy” (Jimmy Conlin) and the lion.

Lions have shown up as a surprise element in many comedies. Just the presence of a huge male behind a closed door, calmly descending a staircase, or sitting quietly behind unsuspecting people can evoke a giggle. Then, when the lion belts out a roar and everyone scatters in fear the laughs really begin.

In The Circus (U.A., 1928), Charlie Chaplin escapes a horse by running into a lion’s cage at the circus. Fortunately the lion is sleeping, but Charlie manages to lock himself in. When he finds a small sliding door he thinks he’s free but it leads to the tiger’s cage (not sleeping) right next door.

Hold That Lion (Columbia1947) features the Three Stooges – Moe, Larry and Shemp – on the run to escape a train conductor because they haven’t the money to purchase tickets. They hide in a crate, which is also housing a lion. Of course, they discover the lion, and, in their panic to get away, they let it loose on the train.

And of course, though not released with the original film, there is the scene where the Marx Brothers take the place of the snarling Leo in the MGM opening logo for A Night at The Opera.

If you enjoy the sheer beauty and power of lions, the way they move and sound, no matter how silly the story is, you can see why they can steal the scene. I was surprised at how many I found in movies and still I can’t help but feel I missed some. No doubt if you look you’ll find many more lion appearances in films not mentioned here, depending on how back in time you go. I seem to remember a lion in an episode of The Little Rascals, but it was only Jack Roach in a lion suit (Buried Treasure, 1926).

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