The Naked Prey
January 22, 2008
Cornel Wilde was a fascinating anomaly in Hollywood. He used the money from his numerous acting jobs to help bankroll his own personal projects that he would produce and direct. Wilde made only eight films but they are ones that once you see them, you never forget. The Naked Prey (1966) is one of these films – a two-fisted scathing attack on the white man’s ruthless exploitation of the African continent – its people and resources.
Two hunters are on safari. One of them (Van Den Bergh) arrogantly plans to become a slave trader after this expedition while the other (Wilde) plans to retire to his farm. The future slave trader foolishly offends a local tribe, much to the chagrin of the future farmer. They both come to regret this cultural faux pas when the tribe attacks their camp later that day. They are subdued by overwhelming numbers, captured and brought back to the tribe’s village like the trophies that they are. One by one, the survivors are killed until only the white men are left.
Three of them are humiliated and killed in horrible, ritualized fashion. Wilde captures these scenes in almost documentary fashion and the attention to detail makes it all seem very authentic, like a National Geographic special gone horribly, terribly wrong. For the last man (Wilde), he is stripped naked and given a small head start before the village’s best hunters pursue him. The man uses fear and cunning skill to kill one hunter and temporarily elude the others. The rest of the film plays out as a cat and mouse game mixed with a survivalist’s tale as the man has to stay ahead of the hunters and somehow survive the unforgiving environment.
What separates The Naked Prey from other films of its kind at the time is the great respect it as for the African people. They are portrayed as a proud, vibrant race that mourns their dead. They exact revenge on the arrogant white men who offend them and wastefully exploit their land. The hunters are smart, persistent and experts at tracking, doggedly pursuing the man who is a bit more resourceful, able to just barely outfox his pursuers time and time again.
The man spends most of the film on the run, picking off his attackers one at a time in a way that suggests that The Naked Prey might have had a profound influence on Mel Gibson’s ode to survivalist cinema, Apocalypto (2006). Wilde shoots his film with the same muscular economy as Sam Fuller, marrying pulpy subject matter with excellent craftsmanship.
Wilde presents an unflinchingly brutal depiction of this world, paralleling the violence man commits on one another with the violence between animals, mixing staged footage with actual footage of animals attacking and killing each other. Both types of footage are quite graphic, anticipating Bonnie & Clyde (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969), and seem visceral even by today’s standards, let alone 1966. The Naked Prey is a powerful meditation on the nature of violence told in unsparing fashion while still working as an exciting genre film.
There is an audio commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince who talks about Wilde as an unfairly overlooked filmmaker whose film would influence future survivalist films like Apocalypto. He also takes a look at the film’s place amongst Wilde’s other motion pictures about survival in a harsh environment. Prince talks about Wilde’s expert use of the widescreen aspect ratio and long shots to establish his characters and their environment. He also takes a look at how the film works as a metaphor for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Prince provides excellent analysis of the film and its place in ‘60s cinema.
“John Colter” features actor Paul Giamatti reading a version of John Colter’s Escape, the story that Wilde based his film on. It was originally the story of a trapper who escaped from a group of Blackfoot Indians. Lower shooting costs and tax breaks convinced Wilde to change the locale to South Africa and he changed the screenplay accordingly.
“Soundtrack” features 18 tracks from the film’s authentic African score complete with tribal chants recorded by Wilde and instrumental cues directed by ethnomusicologist Andrew Tracey.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.