Carl Schultz’s To Walk with Lions (1999) is one of those films which leaves you feeling bad if you’re not enthusiastic about it. Starring Richard Harris, Honor Blackman and Geraldine Chapman, it is – like the story it sets out to tell – an admirable attempt at stirring and heartfelt drama. Also, akin to the story, the film is often grim, leaving the viewer feeling downbeat rather than inspired. We follow George Adamson (Harris), who continued the work of his wife Joy (Blackman) in running a sanctuary for African lions. Here, our man befriends a hotheaded young man called Tony Fitzjohn (John Michie) and takes him on as an aid.
The deepening friendship between the two men and their love for nature is put to the test, however, when local poachers begin raiding the area with devastating repercussions for them all. As an African travelogue, Schultz’s film is both beautiful to look at (partly filmed on location at the Shaba National Game Reserve in Kenya), as well as fascinating in its depiction of the country’s wildlife. It’s also interesting in its illustration of the work and near obsessional commitment which the real-life characters of George Adamson and his estranged wife Joy had for the African lion, as made famous through Joy’s bestselling book, Born Free. Sadly, through, few of the people in the film come across as particularly pleasant characters.
The central problem with To Walk with Lions is that the viewer ends up with little sympathy for any of the individuals none of whom you feel understood or appreciated what was being done for them. The lions, no matter how close Adamson and Fitzjohn got to them, remained wild animals – capable of reverting to their natural instincts without a moment’s warning. Neither did the African natives, including both the poachers and the military called in to fight them, appreciate what they saw as interference from outsiders to their country. As for Adamson, he merely comes over as a cantankerous old man, so obsessed with his vision of saving the African wildlife that he no longer sees the danger his stubbornness is putting both himself and his friends and family in.
Ultimately, Schultz’s To Walk with Lions is the kind of film you feel duty-bound to see through to the bitter end once you’ve started, which is similar to how you imagine the characters in the story themselves saw their situation as it played out against the expansive wilds of the African heartland.