By Mark Celizic
TodayShow.com [July 22, 2008]
[Thanks, Le Prof. Marc...Je t'aime beaucoup, tu es plus qu'une ami.]
The decades-old footage of a full-grown lion joyously embracing two young men like an affectionate house cat has made myriad eyes misty since it recently landed on YouTube. What is it about the old, grainy images of Christian the lion that has attracted some 3 million hits and counting?
Is it simply that a lion remembered the two men who raised it and then released it into the wild? Is it nostalgia for a simpler time 39 years ago, when you could walk into Harrods department store in London, stroll through the “exotic animals” section, and buy a live lion cub? Is it a longing for the swinging Austin Powers-era London of 1969, when you could take the animal home to a basement flat, play with it in a nearby churchyard, and even take it to dinner in swanky restaurants?
The answer may be all of the above. After all, people love animals, and there are few things as enthralling as a lion that could kill a person with one swipe of its paw acting like a pussycat with people who obviously love it. Top it off with Whitney Houston’s sentimental love song “I Will Always Love You” as background music, and you have keyboards shorting out all over America from the tears dripping on them.
TODAY played part of the video Tuesday with little comment or introduction, and when the grainy footage, originally shot on 16-mm film, was finished, Meredith Vieira was among the many in the studio wiping away tears.
Two hip Australians
The video is the work of Anthony “Ace” Bourke and John Rendall, two Australians living in the hip Chelsea section of London in 1969. According to published reports, a friend came back from a trip to Harrods and told them that you could buy exotic animals there.
The two friends went there out of curiosity and spotted a 35-pound lion cub in a small cage. The cub had been born in a zoo and sold to the department store, which wasn’t considered that unusual back then.
Bourke and Rendall felt sorry for the cub and bought it for 250 guineas. The store was glad to be rid of it, as the cub had broken out of its cage one night and wreaked havoc on a display of imported goatskin rugs.
Inspired by the Bible and a sense of irony, Rendall and Bourke named the lion “Christian,” a name that became even more appropriate when the Vicar of the St. John’s Church, which called itself the “Church at the World’s End,” gave the young men permission to exercise Christian in the churchyard.
The opening segments of the video show Rendall and Bourke romping with Christian and playing soccer with the lion. A lengthy story published by The Daily Mail newspaper last year said that the pair lived in a flat under the furniture store where they worked and ferried Christian about town in the back of a Bentley. Mick Jagger lived on the same street, and Christian became a local celebrity, even accompanying Rendall and Bourke into restaurants.
But after a year, the 35-pound cub had grown to 185 pounds. Feeding him was costing the friends 30 pounds a week, and in 1970, that was real money. They knew they couldn’t keep Christian, but didn’t know what to do with him.
As luck would have it, actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna dropped into the furniture store one day looking for a writing desk. The married couple had just finished filming “Born Free,” the inspirational story of Elsa, the lioness who is reintroduced to the wild, in which they played real-life naturalists George and Joy Adamson (Joy Adamson wrote the book on which the hit film was based). They suggested that Rendall and Bourke contact George Adamson in Kenya.
Rendall and Bourke flew with Christian to Kenya, where they and George Adamson introduced the lion to his natural habitat. When they felt sure he had a new family and a safe territory, the two friends went back to their lives in London. But they kept in touch with Adamson and made a few visits to Kenya to see Christian from afar.
But in 1974, Adamson lost touch with Christian for three months. When he told Rendall and Bourke, they decided to make one last trip to Kenya to attempt to say goodbye to Christian. The night before they landed, Adamson said, Christian suddenly reappeared and sat on a rock outside the naturalist’s camp — as if waiting for his pals.
The main part of the film shown on YouTube was shot the following day, when Bourke and Rendall went into the bush to attempt to see their old friend.
The color film has no sound. Subtitles tell the story, but they’re hardly needed. There are two
Christian's former owners had been told the lion wouldn't recognize them. But the video shows the lion's obvious joy at being reunited with the two men.
Christian even brings one of the lionesses in his pride over to meet his former roommates. The Daily Mail story reports that the lioness was clearly not happy with Christian’s two-legged friends, and Adamson told Rendall and Bourke that it was time to leave. They went back to the camp, and Christian went with them, staying up late into the night as the humans partied with their friend.
The next day Christian walked back into the bush, where his lionesses were waiting. He was never seen again — but the power of the Internet guarantees that he will never be forgotten.