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The Naked Prey is an exotic, violent African adventure from the middle 1960s. Previously known as a matinee idol of middling talent, independent producer-director Cornel Wilde proves himself a master of visual storytelling. His subject is savagery, dramatized on real African locations with African talent. Hollywood's tradition of racist safari adventures had tapered off with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. For American audiences raised on TV airings of Tarzan movies, The Naked Prey's richly drawn portrait of African native culture was an eye-opening and provocative experience.
Thanks to its licensing relationship with Paramount, Criterion offers this unique adventure in a stunning widescreen presentation. It's been on the short list of desired DVDs for quite a while.
Cornel Wilde had success in smaller directing and producing ventures (such as 1955's minimalist noir, The Big Combo) but hit his stride with three key pictures about savagery and survival. His war movie Beach Red was a big success but a much cruder effort. The post-apocalyptic ecological science fiction saga No Blade of Grass set a new standard for grim cynicism but suffers from a hysterical tone and exploitative excess. Wilde's best picture by far, The Naked Prey stands out as a model of inspired filmmaking.
Cy Endfield's 1965 Zulu filled screens with hordes of authentic Africans in a respectful replay of the Zulu Wars. The Naked Prey goes a significant step further by humanizing the native tribesmen. As Stephen Prince points out in his insightful commentary, we learn much more about the pursuing Africans than we do Wilde's lone white 'prey'. The Africans show pride, shame and anger, a full range of human anxieties. Every kid remembers the distraught reaction of the warrior who comes across a fallen comrade: the man collapses in the dirt and hugs the body with a wail of sorrow. We want Wilde's white man to escape, but we also understand and respect his pursuers.
Wilde's message is that we are all savages, and that the horrors inflicted on the captured safari are only a reaction to an equally barbaric outside world of slavers, poachers and colonials. Muslim slavers seize an entire black village. The white hunters consider the natives as just more wildlife for exploitation, something to be brushed aside while massacring elephants for ivory. When the safari's arrogant leader offends a native party, the Africans reciprocate with slaughter and torture on a fearful scale. The whites are dragged back to the native camp and made the centerpiece of a killing circus. The savage natives force one man to face a deadly cobra and, in one of the most nightmarish scenes ever, bake another alive. After this, New Yorker cartoons showing missionaries being boiled in pots no longer seem as funny.
As it was made in South Africa The Naked Prey is often cited as a political statement against Apartheid (cite Prince, once again). At first the African natives align with our cultural image of heathens who enjoy killing and evil, but we soon realize that they are simply defending their land and way of life. Ken Gampu's sub-chief is a noble warrior. He respects his prey enough to grant him a fighting chance, unaware that the safari guide has the potential to out-run and outfox his pursuers.
Wilde's blood-soaked direction pits the naked runner against the cruel landscape, where every living thing must fight for survival. Crisply edited montages catalog the variety of spiny plants and cactus waiting to tear his exposed skin. Stealing the garb and weapons of one of his pursuers, the guide fells a small eland, only to have a lion steal the carcass. Finding sources of protein is as important as running and fighting; the guide tries several inedible plants before eating a gross-looking but apparently tasty snail. Inspired by the authentic setting, Wilde tells his story with a maximum of narrative clarity. Over 50 but in remarkable physical condition, Wilde does his own stunts and acts with admirable understatement. The champion fencer began in show business choreographing swordfights for the theater. He stages his action scenes in convincing master shots. The fights are short, brutal and bloody.
The Naked Prey was an international hit. With so little dialogue, language was no barrier. The primitive setting (and racial bias of the censors?) permitted native nudity and a higher level of gore than was the norm for 1966. Wilde's everyman hero enjoys a final moment of comradeship with his black enemy, which may indicate optimism for racial understanding in South Africa. But the director's opinion on African politics can best be seen in the safari guide's farewell to the little African girl he has befriended. Rather than continue with the guide, the girl chooses to go back and see if others of her tribe have survived. The girl's future in her homeland lies on a different path than the white man's, and she's perfectly capable of finding her own way.
Criterion's disc of The Naked Prey gives us a beautiful enhanced transfer of this great picture in its full Panavision aspect ratio. The colors are excellent and the film's hearty African music soundtrack comes across beautifully. The film's realism is heightened by excellent authentic presences and background noises, something unexpected in a 1960s film. The illusion of being deep in the wild breaks only once, when we can plainly see a white truck moving from left to right behind Cornel Wilde in the background of a medium shot. As the director acts in most every scene, he can't be behind the camera at the same time!
Stephen Prince's informative commentary is highly recommended. We learn that The Naked Prey began as a story about a true 'run of the arrow' escape from Blackfoot Indians in the Nebraska territory by John Coulter, a former member of the Lewis & Clark expedition. South African production incentives enticed Wilde to shift his theme to a brand new setting. Prince examines Wilde's other films and also discusses the great African actor Ken Gampu, who began as a schoolteacher. Prince lists The Most Dangerous Game as an obvious progenitor of Prey and reminds us that last year's Apocalypto is really an informal remake.
In addition to a lengthy, over-explicit trailer, the extras include a short reading by Paul Giamatti of a 1913 account of John Coulter's escape, and an audio & text appreciation of the film's unusual musical score. The insert booklet contains an essay by Michael Atkinson and a 1970 interview with Cornel Wilde.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Naked Prey rates:
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