If the number
of spoken words in a movie determined the price of a
Naked Prey" (1966) would be damn cheap. As
essayist Michael Atkinson observes on the Criterion
Collection’s DVD of Cornel Wilde’s unjustly
neglected masterpiece, it has “the least English
or subtitled dialogue of any Hollywood movie since ‘Modern
Times’ and yet was nominated for a best original
“The Naked Prey” will set you back $39.95.
But it’s worth it.
In place of words,
Wilde offers action.
The original story
was based on John Colter, who left the Lewis and
Clark expedition to trap beaver in what is now Montana.
Indians captured him and his partner, and after
killing his partner, they offered Colter a chance
to escape – or at least die trying in a foot
race to the death.
The Indians stripped
Colter naked and gave him a head start. Then they
set after him in a scenario that evokes the 1932
film, “The Most Dangerous Game.”
Strong and fleet-footed,
Colter managed to outdistance all but one Indian,
whom he killed just before reaching a river. Because
the Indians were closing in on him, he hid in a
beaver lodge (some accounts say it was pile of driftwood)
until the Indians abandoned their hunt. Amazingly,
Colter lived to tell his tale.
It would have
made a great film, with the potential to offer social
commentary on a variety of American Indian-related
issues bubbling to the surface in the mid-1960s,
when Wilde was trying to pull together the funds
for “The Naked Prey.”
how the film worked out, though.
shooting costs and tax breaks if he shot the film
in South Africa, Wilde shifted the story from the
American West to Colonial-era Africa.
In the revised
story, a safari sets out from a fort to gather ivory.
En route, they meet a group of warriors who demand
a tribute. The safari manager, listed in the credits
as Man (played by Wilde), understands the consequences
of rejecting the request and readily agrees, but
the safari’s financer, listed in the credits
as Second Man, refuses.
not giving them anything,” Second Man says.
“What the hell for? Who says they own this
The safari leaves
the warriors empty-handed. But not for long.
After a successful
elephant hunt, the safari finds itself under attack.
Quickly overwhelmed, the men are taken to the warriors’
village, where they face a variety of tortures.
Village women truss up one man and attack him with
spears. Villagers cover another man in mud and roast
him over a fire.
to pay tribute earns him a shot at a respectable
death. Like Colter, he is stripped naked and offered
a head start. Then the warriors give chase.
At that moment,
the film becomes a straightforward – and captivating
– chase scene.
Despite its straightforward
storyline, “The Naked Prey” is a complicated
beast. As Stephen Prince notes in his insightful
commentary for the Criterion edition, Wilde offers
both the generic Hollywood depictions of the Other
– whether African or American Indian –
as well as more nuanced insights into the emotional
lives of the Africans who pursue Man. (Wilde’s
portrayals of the African warriors are downright
subversive, given that he shot the film in Apartheid-governed
On the other end
of the spectrum, Man is largely a figure without
emotion – or backstory, for that matter. He
simply kills and keeps running.
For Wilde, nature
comes down to two states of being: predator and prey.
In shots scattered throughout the film, he shows us
lions eating wildebeests and snakes eating lizards and
birds. There is no mercy in this cruel world. And –
here’s the humanist message of the film –
the characters in “The Naked Prey” fall
into those two states of being when they fail to communicate
across cultural and racial divides.
In one short but
telling scene, Man shakes his head in disgust as
a snake eats a small bird. But it doesn’t
keep him from killing his pursuers. Forced into
a Darwinian game of predator and prey, Man becomes
one of the animals, whether he wants to or not.
Wilde keeps the
film’s action in the foreground and leaves
the film’s message unspoken. He was more overt
in an interview in which he said, “Man must
learn to understand his fellow man, no matter how
different he is, or all men will live like animals
in the jungle.”
“The Naked Prey”
offers a subtle but powerful anti-war, pro-diplomacy
argument, for those who look past the film’s vigorous
joys of the chase.