The Naked Prey could be called a vanity project, as it’s directed and produced by as well as stars Cornel Wilde, an actor who’d been popping up in various Hollywood films over the 40’s and 50’s. After starring in the hugely successful The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952, he turned his hand to directing and from the mid-50’s onwards, made a handful of his own films (in which he also starred).
Nestling in the middle of this 20 year directorial career is The Naked Prey. It was a disastrous shoot, with Wilde reportedly hugely underprepared for shooting on location in the plains of Africa. He drove himself and his crew too hard and wasn’t able to get everything he needed to due illness and a lack of budget.
However, the film did get completed and remains Wilde’s most famous and respected work. It may not be hugely well known, but it gained a fair amount of praise on release (including an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay) and still has a bit of a following, which would explain its re-release now.
The Naked Prey tells a very simple story, reminiscent of The Most Dangerous Game although it is actually based on a true account (albeit with a location change from the American West to Africa). Wilde plays a character merely referred to as ‘man’ in the credits. He’s the head of a safari team who are guiding an unpleasant trophy hunter (Gert van den Bergh) to shoot some elephants. After this stuck up gent refuses to give a tribute to a warrior tribe, they are swiftly attacked. Three of the four white members of the group are viciously murdered, leaving only Wilde’s character. Being a fit and healthy specimen of a man, the tribe’s chief feels his death could be more of a sport, so a group of expert hunters is sent out into the plains with Wilde’s character. They fire an arrow for him to run towards and once he reaches it, they take pursuit. This all happens in the first 15 minutes or so and the rest of the film is just one long chase as Wilde’s character battles for survival under the blazing sun with the tribesmen hot on his trail.
I do love a good stripped down, economic genre film and this is that to a T. After the opening scenes there is pretty much no dialogue (in English at least). We are simply plunged into the nightmarish chase with no unnecessary side stories and only the briefest of mellower moments towards the end (when Wilde befriends a young African child). It’s raw and bold, particularly for the time and works a treat as a pure chase film. With little to no dialogue, the film’s sound design and music drives things forward. The never ending chorus of nature provides the wild backing and frenzied tribal drumming provides the pulse.
The soundtrack is particularly intense in the initial attack and torture of the safari team, which is an incredibly brutal scene in general. The blood may look fake, but the savagery of the massacre is still strong and added to the beatings and stabbings you get one character encased in clay then cooked alive as well as another tied to the ground in front of a trapped cobra.
It’s scenes like these that point towards one of the problems of the film though. It’s not particularly PC when viewed through modern eyes. The warrior tribe are vicious and bloodthirsty (literally – they drink a goat’s blood before murdering the safari team). Having the lead white character named ‘man’ when there are plenty of black men in the cast isn’t a good sign either. The film does try to balance this out though it could be argued. On top of the young African child mentioned previously who saves Wilde’s life, the tribesman hunting Wilde are experts in their craft and are shown to have great compassion for their companions when they’re killed. Van den Bergh’s character, who instigates the attack, is drawn as possibly the most unpleasant character in the film too. He talks of his wishes to work in the slave trade, kills elephants for fun rather than ivory (not that that’s much better) and is seen as a stubborn fool for refusing to pay tribute to the tribe in the film’s catalysing scene.
If the racist edges get slightly smoothed over due to these points, the film does have another problem in its bluntness. On top of the blatant hammering home of Van den Bergh’s character’s flaws in the early scenes, the film draws comparison between Wilde’s chase and the hunting of animals in their natural habitats far too often. In between practically every scene we get some random (often obviously stock) footage of a gazelle getting hunted by a lion or similar. Once or twice might have been a nice touch, but Wilde over labours his point and this cutting away from the core action constantly brings you out of an otherwise flab-free film.
This heavy handedness doesn’t detract enough to stop The Naked Prey from being a thrilling experience though. Fans of Apocalypto will love it, as there are a number of similarities and I’d be surprised if Mel Gibson didn’t draw inspiration from the earlier film. It may be a bit dated, but it’s refreshingly raw, fairly unique and thoroughly exciting.
The Naked Prey is out on October 19th on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the picture and audio quality is excellent. I spotted a couple of hairs trapped in the gate, but for a film shot in such harsh conditions 50 years ago, the print looks and sounds remarkably good.
The only notable extra feature is a new video interview with film historian Sheldon Hall about Cornel Wilde’s career and Naked Prey’s difficult production. It’s a fascinating piece which has been well researched.
And as with all Masters of Cinema releases, you get a booklet in with the package, which is as informative as always. It includes the original story on which the film was based, which makes for an interesting comparison.