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I'll give you to the count of 10
Cornel Wilde's "The Naked Prey"

f the number of spoken words in a movie determined the price of a DVD, "The 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 screenplay Oscar.”

Criterion’s “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.”

That’s not how the film worked out, though.

Offered lower 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.

“I’m not giving them anything,” Second Man says. “What the hell for? Who says they own this land?”

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.

Man’s willingness 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 South Africa.)

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.

—Review by Doug Childers

Posted February 1, 2008



Special Features
of the Criterion DVD

• New, restored high-definition digital transfer

• Audio commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince

• "John Colter’s Escape," a 1913 written record of the trapper's flight from Blackfoot Indians – which was the inspiration for "The Naked Prey" – read by actor Paul Giamatti

• Original soundtrack cues created by director Cornel Wilde and ethnomusicologist Andrew Tracey, along with a written statement by Tracey on the score

• Theatrical trailer

• A booklet featuring a new essay by film critic Michael Atkinson and a 1970 interview with Wilde



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