SHABA NATURE RESERVE, KENYA
Just before crocodile feeding time at his hotel in Kenya's Shaba Nature Reserve, actor Richard Harris puts aside postcards he was writing to his granddaughters and explains his initial reluctance to make the film "To Walk With Lions."
The film is based on the last years of Mr. "Born Free" - Kenyan game warden and lion-tamer George Adamson.
"Every time I opened the paper in London, something told me I shouldn't do the film," says Mr. Harris, an Irish actor thrice nominated for Academy Awards. "In the week before I was to leave for Kenya, a London circus lion killed its trainer and a leopard took the arm off its handler."
The papers also covered stories of deadly attacks by bandits against tourists in Kenya's ungoverned parks.
Finally, however, Harris rationalized that Kenya was no more dangerous than the mobster-ridden former Soviet countries in which he recently filmed "The Barber of Siberia" with Julia Ormond.
Now he's not fazed even by the crocodiles in the Ewaso Nyiro River running past his room at the Sarova Shaba Lodge.
The film focuses not on the savagery of lions but rather on the spiritual bond between Adamson and his big cats, and the young man who became his surrogate son.
With his white hair and goatee, Harris is the spitting image of the dashing George Adamson, who died in 1989.
The "lion man" became world famous through his wife Joy's 1959 bestseller "Born Free," which described the couple's love affair with the orphaned lion cub Elsa.
Despite the image of marital bliss created by the book and movie, the Adamsons' marriage was fractious, and they lived separately in various locales in Kenya's wilds. (George's home became something of a hangout for celebrities in the 1970s, with actresses like Ali MacGraw and Candice Bergen coming to visit.)
They reared abandoned lions, cheetahs, and leopards that had either lost their mothers to hunters or were being rehabilitated after release from zoos.
The Adamsons are credited with helping turn the developed world away from hunting and toward conservation of African wildlife and lands. However, their activities with the animals have been much discredited. Despite their claims to the contrary, they treated the big cats like pets, even after releasing them into the wild.
In the early 1970s, a rabble-rousing English orphan named Tony Fitzjohn was hired by Adamson to replace an assistant killed by his favorite pet lion, Boy. Adamson became a father figure to the young man. The film is based on Mr. Fitzjohn's reminiscences.
Now that he is on the set, Harris says the animal trainers have succeeded in making him comfortable with the lions. "I love moments such as when George talks at night to the wild lions outside the enclosure, and when he reads them the Bible," he says.
The lions are as Hollywood as Rin Tin Tin. Born and raised in California, they were brought to Kenya by renowned animal trainer Sled Reynolds of the Los Angeles company Gentle Jungle. Mr. Reynolds provided lions for Africa's last two big-budget films, "Out of Africa" and "The Ghost and the Darkness."
"Training the animals is the easy part. Basically, it's just food," says Gentle Jungle trainer Jules Sylvester. For example, to get one of the lions to leap at actor John Michie, who plays Fitzjohn, the trainers strapped meat to the back of Mr. Michie's neck. The cat, of course, was on a short leash preventing it from actually making contact with the actor.
Lions are not the only danger in making "To Walk With Lions." Banditry in the impoverished Shaba reserve means co-producers Pieter Kroonenburg and Julie Allan have had to hire one security guard for every three members of the cast and crew. And they say they've spent $250,000 of their $10 million budget on insurance.
Meanwhile, director Carl Schulz has concluded that some Kenyans involved in this film don't get its conservation message. "We hear mutters that some of the locals are poachers moonlighting by coming on the set," says Mr. Schulz. "In one scene a shifta (bandit) has to surreptitiously hold out a rhino horn, offering it for sale. Some of the local crew corrected us; they knew exactly how it would be held."
Kenyan officials hope "To Walk With Lions" will revive the country's moribund film industry - "Out of Africa" was the last blockbuster made here, in 1985. "The Ghost and the Darkness," based on a Kenyan story, was filmed in South Africa.
Like tourists, moviemakers have been turned off by the lack of security and infrastructure in Kenya, one of Africa's most corrupt countries. Co-producer Kroonenburg is disenchanted by his experience in Kenya. "Security is inadequate," he says, "and the government's promised financing has yet to materialize."