Few films capture the understated elegance of their principle(s) in the same way that The Naked Prey. Throughout Producer/Director/Actor, Cornel Wilde’s career, his unique cinematic vision (paired with his penchant for unconventional storylines) built a resume of, if not commercial blockbusters, then certainly worthy gems that beg repeated viewing and revised appreciation. And it is 1966’s The Naked Prey that stands among Wilde’s most recognized, and most poignant work.
At its core, Wilde’s naked tale is a simple game of cat and mouse: African tribesmen capture Wilde’s ivory hunting party, dispose of them in brutal fashion, save for Wilde. He is subsequently stripped of his clothes, dignity, and chance for survival, given a running head start, then pursued by the tribe’s best warriors. Yet beyond the overriding chase theme, the film is rife with thought-provoking contradictions, and is a sophisticated commentary on the human spirit.
Set against the splendor of Africa’s landscape, tranquility and savagery do constant battle. The opening scenes of magnificent scenery are juxtaposed against the graphic reality of an elephant slaughter. The stereotype of “great white hunter” could be easily overplayed and exploited in this instance, but the tables are deftly turned in short order.
After the hunt, whilst in camp, Wilde notes to the trek’s financier that several kills were scored on animals bearing no ivory. The response? Disdain tempered with elitist arrogance. This callous indifference is soon reduced to abject terror, as the hunters and their guides run afoul of local tribesmen. Wilde’s hunter quickly becomes hunted, armed with only his ingenuity and a deep-seeded will to survive.
Faced with apparently insurmountable odds from the outset, Wilde appears to flee with no sense of direction. He merely heads away from his pursuers, attempting to gain as much ground as possible. Though his seemingly directionless flight appears futile, Wilde does indeed run with purpose; he is striding toward triumph through survival, and as such, a validation of himself.
Armed with a rifle and outfitted for a proper hunt, Wilde’s character (billed simply as “Man”) was a dominant force. But left to his own devices in an unforgiving setting, with spear-wielding warriors in hot pursuit, he’s a portrait of vulnerability. And yet, his inner drive lets him engage in hand-to-hand combat (and kill) without remorse, as easily as he ferrets out sustenance from what meager resources nature offers. It is Wilde’s gradual shift from vulnerable to savvy that allows him, as prey, to become predator once again (though in a different context than as ivory hunter).
And the contradictions continue.
As Wilde reduces the ranks of his pursuers while maintaining his distance, he comes across a village being taken by slave traders. Hiding and watching from a makeshift observation post, he encounters (and befriends) a child who has escaped the village. The two lie in wait until several brush-beating slavers come too close, whereupon Wilde bursts forth from his cover, and rushes directly into the village.
There, he wreaks havoc amongst the slavers, killing several as he barely breaks stride. Such a spontaneous on-screen strategy has become standard ham-fisted fare in most big budget action hero outings, but in Wilde’s case, it is continued evidence of his character’s primal instincts, and determination to emerge victorious.
By film’s end, Wilde has survived, and ironically, done so while garnering the respect of his remaining pursuers. The final acknowledgement between himself and the ranking tribesman (noted South African actor, Ken Gampu) embodies the warrior code, where honor can be found in defeat, as well as victory. And it is the two combatants’ subtle salute that symbolizes the thematic simplicity of the film.
Serving as producer, director and star of The Naked Prey, Wilde employed a streamlined approach to keep the film fast-paced and fluid. Much of the chase occurs in real time, with wildlife footage cleverly placed to highlight the action (and violence). There are frequent cuts to predators engaging prey (from jungle cats to antelope), all of which sufficiently underscore Wilde’s own plight. There are even brief moments of humor incorporated, lending a certain human quality to the protagonist as a hunted animal.
The often barren (albeit exotic) locale and minimalist dialog are consistent with Wilde’s utilitarian cinematography. The Naked Prey was filmed on a modest budget, often projecting as such, but the storyline is so compelling that big ticket film effects are unnecessary. Wilde crafted the film from an actual tale of survival, that of trapper John Colter, who was captured by Blackfoot Indians. (A 1913 account of Colter’s experience is included as a special feature on the DVD, read by actor Paul Giamatti). In Wilde’s hands, the story is seamlessly transported from the American plains to the African savannah, with nothing lost in the translation.
Consistent with the Spartan quality of the film, there is little extra material to indulge in with the new DVD package. Aside from the freshly restored, high-definition digital transfer, there is an included booklet (containing a critical essay and 1970 interview with Wilde), and little more. But The Naked Prey speaks for itself, and needs not be augmented by obligatory bonus footage, outtakes, or sundry bells and whistles.
Somewhat surprisingly, Wilde’s chiseled good looks, athleticism, and acting flair never propelled him into the upper echelon of Hollywood’s leading men. That said, towards the end of his life, it seemed that he was relatively content with his legacy, before and behind the camera. And with a film like The Naked Prey serving as his most recognized cinematic achievement, there is much value to be placed in Wilde’s understated elegance.