The Naked Prey [DVD]
Director : Cornel Wilde
Screenplay : Clint Johnston & Don Peters
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1966
Stars : Cornel Wilde (The Man), Gert Van den Bergh (Man #2), Ken Gampu (Leader of the warriors), Patrick Mynhardt (Safari overseer), Bella Randles (Little girl), Morrison Gampu (Tribe leader), Sandy Nkomo (Warrior), Eric Mcanyana (Warrior), John Marcus (Warrior), Richard Mashiya (Warrior), Franklyn Mdhluli (Warrior), Fusi Zazayokwe (Warrior)
In Hollywood of recent years, “action film” has come to be synonymous with “bloated”: bloated budgets, bloated narratives, bloated special effects, and, of course, bloated egos both in front of and behind the camera. From Michael Bay's incoherent action headrushes to Gore Verbinski's screen-splitting visual overload, Hollywood action movies have stopped hitting us in the gut and settled for little more than rattling us senseless. Thus, watching something as lean, stripped down, primal, and brutally effective as Cornel Wilde's The Naked Prey is like rediscovering the wonders of purified water after years of slurping sugary soda.
Wilde started as an actor in the 1940s, and he graduated to leading man status in the 1950s in adventure films that took advantage of his rugged good looks and chiseled physique. Such movie stars were common and rather unremarkable in Hollywood at that time, but unlike the interchangeable he-men who populated sword-and-sandal epics and exotic action-adventures, Wilde yearned to make his own films on his own terms. Thus, he should be credited as a pioneer of sorts, an actor-turned-auteur who paved the way for the likes of Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Mel Gibson, and George Clooney, all leading men who mortgaged their silver-screen popularity for the opportunity to be artists behind the camera.
Wilde had directed several solid genre films before The Naked Prey, but it was this bare-bones survival tale that staked his claim to more than just accomplished craftsmanship. Loosely based on the actual 18th-century escape of Lewis and Clark adventurer and trapper John Colter from Blackfoot Indians, The Naked Prey shifts the setting to colonial South Africa. The exact time period, as well as the tribal identities of the Africans and the cultural heritage (not to mention the names) of the white safari hunters is left vague, which suggests that the film is more parable than historical recreation. Wilde plays a safari guide whose bullheaded client (Gert Van den Bergh) offends the tribe on whose land they are hunting elephants, which results in all of them being captured and all but Wilde being tortured and killed. Because he has earned some respect from the Africans, Wilde's character is given a chance to live: He is stripped naked and sent running into the savannah with a group of the tribe's best warriors in hot pursuit, which pretty much sums up the last hour of the film.
As a director, Wilde wrings significant drama and tension from this scenario in purely primal terms. That is, The Naked Prey works on the level of simple survival; there is no backstory for Wilde's character or convoluted narrative dramatics to support the action. Rather, the story hinges on the inherent dramatic intensity of the desire for survival and violence of conflict, which Wilde puts into perspective by frequently intercutting documentary footage of lions chasing down wildebeest, a snake and an iguana going head to head, and even an enormous toad eating the smaller toads around him. Wilde boils life down to a fight for survival, stripping away civility and socialized morality and exposing the raw essence of life. We don't care about Wilde's character because of his ethics or his personality, but because we recognize in him a fellow human being forced to the edge of endurance, where the only thing that matters is his life--not its quality or its details, but its very existence. (It is interesting to compare the film to Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, whose basic narrative structure is clearly taken from The Naked Prey, but then replaces the simplicity of its survival ethos with a more conventional celebration of home and family.)
The Naked Prey is a rough film, both aesthetically and thematically. It is also an infinitely paradoxical film. On a visual level, the editing is often coarse and rough, sometimes borderline amateurish in the way it is clearly covering up for a lack of budget and special effects; however, many of Wilde's widescreen compositions are elegant, even rapturous. Having been filmed on location in South Africa certainly contributes to the film's visual grandeur, but Wilde also proves that he has a poet's eye, such as when he uses a flowering tree branch to frame a brutal beating. There is none of the romanticized cheapness that is the hallmark of so many low-budget Hollywood forays into the African bush. Rather, Wilde sees the harshness of nature for what it is, reveling in both its violence and its primal splendor.
Ideologically, the film certainly rubs against political correctness in its depiction of a seemingly righteous white man outmaneuvering “uncivilized” African warriors, some of whom appear to be ripped right out of Hollywood's dated “dark continent” playbook. Look closer, though, and you'll realize The Naked Prey does not have any real heroes or villains, with the exception of Van den Bergh's spoiled and racist aristocrat. We actually know less about Wilde's character than we do about the African tribesmen, who are given at least as much, if not more, screen time and come across as fully rounded humans with a wide range of emotions. That the story ends on a note of mutual admiration may play as a cop-out to some, but the film clearly earns it.
The only time The Naked Prey sinks anywhere close to simplified nightmares about dark-skinned natives is during the torture sequence in which the white safari hunters are humiliated, beaten, and, in one instance, encased in mud and slowly roasted over an open fire. There is something almost too neat and familiar about the whole scenario, and it feels like it was cooked up on a Hollywood backlot, rather than emerging from the ethnographic detail that largely defines the rest of the film. In both the torture sequence and in the various battles that ensue, the film's violence is harsh and potent, especially for the mid-1960s, but it is evenly spread across the racial spectrum, which reinforces Wilde's underlying theme about both the inherent savagery of the human animal and the beauty of his insatiable desire to survive.
|The Naked Prey Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||January 15, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The Naked Prey has been kicking around on television and videocassette since the 1970s, but this is the first time it has been available for home viewing in all its widescreen glory. Criterion's new high-definition transfer, which was taken from a 35mm low-contrast print struck from the original camera negative, is absolutely gorgeous, and those who are used to seeing faded pan-and-scan prints from TV are in for a real revelation. The richness of the location photography is allowed to shine in all its rugged beauty, and the clarity and sharpness of the image allows us to soak in all the gritty details. The image is smooth and completely free of damaged and dirt thanks to the MTI Digital Restoration System. The inserts from stock photography are made more obvious because the grain structure is so clearly different, but it's all part of the experience. The original monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from 35mm magnetic tracks, sounds wonderful and clear. The musical score, which is composed entirely of traditional African instruments, is one of the film's strongest points.|
|Film scholar Stephen Prince, who has contributed audio commentaries to several previous Criterion DVDs, offers a rich, informative commentary track. Prince discusses the film's production background and puts it into its rightful context as a deeply influential and unfairly neglected film. He also spends a great deal of time analyzing its ideological context and effectively arguing its social relevance in regard to both South African apartheid and the 1960s civil rights movement in the U.S. Also included on the disc is “John Colter's Escape,” in which actor Paul Giamatti reads the 1913 written record of the trapper's escape from Blackfoot Indians. Fans of the soundtrack will enjoy the ability to listen to the original soundtrack cues created by director Cornel Wilde and ethnomusicologist Andrew Tracey (Tracey also contributes a written account of how he came to work on the film's soundtrack and who was involved). The original theatrical trailer is a fascinating case study of how a meaningful film can be made to look like cheap exploitation. Finally, the insert booklet includes an illuminating new essay by film critic Michael Atkinson and a 1970 interview with Wilde that was originally published in Films and Filming.|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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