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.
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.
But by the late '80s, the situation in Kenya was deteriorating, with Somali bandits running amok, poachers killing elephants, rhinos and leopards on a daily basis and serious instability in the surrounding villages. Fitzjohn and Adamson increasingly butted heads with local tribes, who were killing animals, and corrupt Kenyan game officials, who turned a blind eye to poaching. Fitzjohn was expelled from the country, and Adamson's life was threatened.
So, with Adamson's blessing, Fitzjohn took the Tanzanian government's offer to rehabilitate the black African rhinoceros at Mkomazi, a 2-million-acre reserve in the northern part of that country. The animal, which numbered more than 10,000 in 1975 in Tanzania, was close to extinction: only 11 remained in 1989. A single rhino horn, which is used as an aphrodisiac or for medicinal purposes in Asia, can fetch as much as $85,000 in the black market. The game reserve itself was a wasteland, ruined by years of neglect and severe overgrazing.
But before Fitzjohn could even begin his new task, Adamson was murdered by Somali bandits. Though he lived a long life, dying at the age of 83, Adamson's murder is something that still haunts Fitzjohn. In the film, Fitzjohn's character reads the eulogy he was prohibited from reading by Kenyan authorities during Adamson's real funeral.
"I was devastated," said Fitzjohn, who himself had been beaten by Kenyan thugs warning him to leave the country. "Half of
me feels that I should've ignored the bad guys and stayed on with [Adamson]. But if there was one thing George didn't want to do was to die in a hospital and be moved out as a cripple."
But the living spirit of Adamson's work is a source of inspiration for Fitzjohn.
"He was such a lovely man," he said. "He just gave me the chance to be whatever I wanted to be."
Fitzjohn's current endeavor in Mkomazi picks up where the movie ends.
Ten years since arriving in Mkomazi on that rainy day, Fitzjohn is beginning to see some of the fruits of his labor. It has not been an easy or cheap task. Several months out of the year, Fitzjohn travels to England, Holland and Los Angeles to raise money for the sanctuary, which costs about $300,000 a year to run.
Mkomazi in Swahili means danger--"no water"--a forewarning of sorts for Fitzjohn, who had to build a dam to sustain the camp during the dry season.
To protect the rhino, he runs a paramilitary-style operation with two dozen armed men patrolling a 19-mile-long electrical fence surrounding the sanctuary 24 hours a day. Poachers are armed with automatic machine guns, so Fitzjohn had to be ready.
"We are prepared. But we try to design everything so we don't have a confrontation and my guys don't get killed and we don't have to kill anyone," said Fitzjohn. "We do live in very greedy times, and there are some very desperate people out there."
Fitzjohn hopes the movie will motivate people to become involved in conservation, Fitzjohn said.
"I'd like people to see George as just one man that has given his life to this--along with many other Kenyans and Tanzanians who have died for the environment," he said. "We live in an age of celebrity. These people that stick up for the planet and the animals are the real heroes."