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The Not-So-Peaceable Kingdom

Tony Fitzjohn adored conservationist George Adamson, of 'Born Free' fame. 'To Walk With Lions' tells their story.

July 25, 1999|LORENZA MUNOZ | Lorenza Mun~oz is a Calendar staff writer

As torrents of rain poured down, Tony Fitzjohn sat in his road ranger, looked out to the endless horizon of the Mkomazi game reserve in Tanzania and started to cry. He was plagued with self-doubt; how could he take on the task of rehabilitating animals to the wild, protecting them from poachers and rebuilding an ecosystem that had been decimated by grazing and civil strife?

Then the image of his surrogate father, the celebrated conservationist George Adamson, appeared before him.

"I didn't know where to start," said Fitzjohn, recalling the memory during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "And then the old man was there as if to say, 'One foot in front of the other, one step at a time.' And that is what we did. A lot of what drives me, to a great extent, is the memory of George."

The remarkable story of George Adamson and Tony Fitzjohn, two wild Englishmen who dedicated--and in Adamson's case sacrificed--their lives to saving animals in Africa, has now been captured on film. "To Walk With Lions," starring Richard Harris as Adamson, is a sequel of sorts to "Born Free," the 1966 movie about Elsa the lioness who was rehabilitated to the wild by George and his wife, Joy Adamson.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 1, 1999 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Film producer--Julie Allan is the producer of the film "To Walk With Lions," along with Pieter Kroonenburg. She was incorrectly identified in a story about the film last Sunday.

The film also stars Ian Bannen ("Waking Ned Devine") as Adamson's brother Terence; John Michie as Fitzjohn; Kerry Fox as Fitzjohn's wife, Lucy; Honor Blackman as Joy Adamson; and Geraldine Chaplin as Adamson's friend Victoria Andrecelli. Shot on location in Kenya and directed by Carl Schultz, the film begins in the 1970s and ends with Adamson's tragic death in 1989.

Adamson's story intrigued Harris, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his real-life counterpart. It was a difficult role to play since Adamson was an introverted man, often going for months without speaking, preferring to keep company with his animals, Harris said.

"He was more comfortable with the animals than with people," he said.

Harris was initially unsure whether he could play the role. But after watching countless hours of documentaries and old footage of Adamson, he found himself transformed.

"[Adamson] just spoke to me and said 'Play me,' " said Harris. "I did not know anything about him before the film. I kind of connected. And what he tried to do was very important."

The $14-million film premiered at the Seattle Film Festival in June and received positive reviews. Its next screening will be at the Toronto Film Festival in September, where the filmmakers hope to pick up a distributor. The movie was financed mainly by Canadian producer Pieter Kroonenburg's company, GFT Kingsborough Films.

Kroonenburg and co-producer Julie Allan changed the script at least three times and had some financing problems when one of the film's backers pulled out unexpectedly. "We managed to finish the movie, but it almost bankrupted my company," said Kroonenburg.

Now the task of getting it distributed remains.

"In my naivete, I didn't particularly care too much about how this film would be marketed, but I thought it was an important story that needed to be told," he said. "If I had been paying more attention to the difficulties, I don't know what I would've done. I'm sort of glad I kept marching blithely along."

Kroonenburg brought veteran marketing strategist Jeff Dowd (who helped market "Hoosiers" and "The Black Stallion") on board. In an industry increasingly obsessed with niche marketing, "To Walk With Lions" could easily fall between the cracks since it is neither purely a children's film nor purely an adult movie.

"It feels the same way to me as the 'Black Stallion' and 'Chariots of Fire' movies," said Dowd. "This is a movie whose uniqueness is both an asset and a liability. At first it's a head-scratcher for distributors because they need to see that it will work."

But the ways of Hollywood do not particularly impress or interest Fitzjohn, a rugged man with leathery brown skin and a scarred body--a memento from a lion attack that almost killed him more than 15 years ago. But he does hope the film will bring attention to the plight of wild animals in Africa, which have been under assault for the last 20 years by poachers, ranchers and human neglect.

"We have lost more species in the last few decades on the planet than we have in the last 65 million years," said Fitzjohn. "If we don't save these animals and the wilderness for its own sake then . . . we do the human race a great disservice."

Fitzjohn, 54, did not always have such a focused purpose. In his late 20s, he worked as a truck driver and Outward Bound instructor in Africa. There he met Adamson, who quickly became the father figure he never had as an orphan growing up in England.

"To Walk With Lions" covers the duo's nearly 20 years together taking in injured or captive lions and leopards and teaching them the ways of the wild for eventual return to the bush.

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