For really dangerous scenes, they used animatronic puppets, filming the actor with an “over-the-tiger’s-shoulder” shot. Annaud used real tigers for 99 percent of his shots, however.

In one exceptional scene at the end of the film, Pearce approaches a tiger and strokes him. This was the only time that anyone was allowed next to one without protection.

“I had worked with the tigers for about six weeks,” Pearce said. “And I had a lot of respect for the fact that it wasn’t safe, but after spending months with them, they knew I had a lot of respect for them. … We had a cage right behind me, though.”

Pearce filmed the part during a one-year sabbatical, traveling back and forth between Cambodia and his native Australia to be with his wife. The day he arrived on the set, Annaud took him into the chicken-wire cage where they were filming. One of the tigers, playing with a rope, jumped into the air and fell onto their cage.

“The photographer leapt to the back of the cage,” Pearce said, “But I thought, ‘Wow, man! This is going to be the most exciting job I’ve ever worked on!’”

Annaud chose Pearce for his natural instinct for animals. He also liked the fact that Pearce was born in England and grew up in what Annaud called “a colony,” a theme that is reflected in the period film. And, he said, he liked Pearce’s morphology, which is tall and thin and matches the way many men looked at that time. Pearce’s character was loosely based on Henri Malraux, the Frenchman who was imprisoned in 1923 for looting Cambodian temples and who became the French Minister of Culture, a role that inspired him to protect national monuments. Tiger hunter Jim Corbett, who ultimately created the first national park in India to protect tigers, also inspired Annaud in his story of a man who comes to respect nature.

It is a theme that the director longs to convey with his fable-like film.

“I hope that, with this movie, we can give a little message that people can carry home in their hearts, so that they will think twice about cutting a tree or killing an animal,” Annaud said. “I don’t want to sound too ponderous, but after all, this is why we make movies.”

Born free or set free, “Two Brothers” will challenge us to think about what it means to be stewards of the world’s animal kingdom, even as it entertains and charms us.

"Two Brothers" opens Friday, June 25, 2004 in theaters nationwide.