IN HIS prime, actor Cornel Wilde lived something of a double life. Alongside earning a crust as a handsome leading man in the Hollywood studio system he was also an independent producer, writer and director who crafted his own films that set out to put mankind in the midst of the most dramatic situations imaginable. The Naked Prey from 1966 is one of the finest examples of his work and thanks to Eureka video it’s available on blu-ray this month.
Released as part of the label’s admirable Masters Of Cinema series, it’s a film that is both hugely entertaining and, at times, genuinely shocking. Not content with producing and directing, Wilde also plays the central role of a safari guide referred to in the credits as simply “Man”.
When his entire expedition group is ruthlessly wiped out by a native South African tribe who are deeply offended by the group leader (Gert Van Den Bergh) and his sneering refusal to pay respect to their chief, he is the lone survivor, spared instant death thanks to the fact he knew their language and had tried to convince his pigheaded leader to at least negotiate with their assailants.
For this the tribe offer him an “honourable” death and he is given a head start to race off naked into the African wilderness with a selection of spear-wielding tribesmen following swiftly on his tail.
Based on the true story of American hunter John Colter who invoked the bloody wrath of a tribe of Blackfoot Indians and was apparently hunted mercilessly across country for his trouble, The Naked Prey is a wildly exciting survival movie that takes a simple premise and cranks up the tension relentlessly.
There are strong elements of Richard Connell’s man-hunting classic The Most Dangerous Game at play here but Wilde’s film has deeper points to make about the subject of man pursuing his fellow man. Lush though it looks, with its glorious African vistas and rich vibrant colour, this is a movie keen to make a point about the brutality of mankind and the savagery of nature at its most basic.
That means we get spared little on the violence front. While much of the constant human butchery is kept off screen, as you’d expect in a mid-60s film, there are several stock-footage sequences of real elephants getting slaughtered that many may find unacceptable.
The accusation that the “great white hunter” is glorified throughout has also been levelled at the film but a closer look suggests such simplistic assessments are unfair.
The Tribesmen are never merely one-dimensional killers – we see and hear their desperate howls of grief as their number are taken out by the inventive Wilde, for example – and the outcome is never obvious the way you’d find it in most Hollywood movies of the time.
Acting with dignity and directing with real panache, Wilde paints a richly believable picture of mankind at the very edge.
Exciting, thought provoking and hugely influential on every human pursuit movie that’s came along since, The Naked Prey is little short of a masterpiece.