BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE NAKED PREY

By • Mar 7th, 2008 •

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There must be a potential article for some enterprising film scholar in tracing the macabre history of just how many serial killers, not to mention filmmakers, have been inspired by the now classic film THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932). Last year’s celebrated crime thriller ZODIAC used the vintage film as a focal point in tracing the elusive killer to a revival cinema in the Bay area where the film was being screened; we then discover the Zodiac even designed the theater’s poster art for the Fay Wray classic.

Former matinee idol Cornel Wilde was one such filmmaker who never forgot the film when he saw it as a boy, already in love with the movies. I was fortunate to have known Cornel during the last couple of years of his life. I know he would have been over the moon with the current DVD release from Criterion of his masterpiece THE NAKED PREY.

This movie has been a staple on every film buff’s short list since the very advent of the medium, THE NAKED PREY was an international hit when it was first released and has systematically grown in stature ever since… A groundbreaking film for it’s time (1966), It was made exactly one year after the success of ZULU the film which first brought the African vista and the Zulu population into the mainstream. Cornel’s film is quite different in its savagery and tone and is far more ambitious in theme and execution.

THE NAKED PREY is told from the point of view of both the hunter and the hunted, and the key to films integrity lies within the masterful way Wilde gives us a humanized characterization of the African warriors. They are documentary-like studies of real human beings who must protect their way of life the only way they know how, no matter how brutal it may seem to western eyes.

The plot is straightforward in its simplicity. A group of nineteenth century colonialists prepare an expedition into tribal territory to stalk and kill elephants for their ivory. The leader of the expedition makes the fatal error of insulting the tribe that inhabits the territory they wish to hunt in. After slaughtering dozens of animals they find themselves surrounded and then taken to the village where from a western point of view they are one by one tortured and killed in rather gruesome ways. The sequence of baking one of the trespassers in clay is unforgettable. The character Wilde plays is simply identified as “man,” and the natives allow him a fighting chance at survival, giving him a running head start wearing only a loincloth, and allowed onlly his cunning to escape from the posse of warriors assigned to kill him..

What follows is a tour de force for Wilde as an actor and especially as a director. The stock footage Cornel found of the actual slaying of the elephants is horrific and quite shocking for a film of this period. The most infamous sequence may well be the safari natives seen literally walking full length into a gutted elephant, hollowed out like a cave in a mountain of flesh.

The expedition is led by a greedy, immoral and sadistic trader (Gert Van Den Berrgh) who, very much like the Count played by Leslie Banks in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, loves to kill for the sheer thrill it gives him over helpless animals. Cornel’s character even comments how many smaller elephants the trader killed that possessed no ivory at all. The trader’s reply, that it was “just good sport,” makes it certain that the audience will not care too much for the fate that befalls him.

The actual story that the film is adapted from a true one regarding the amazing adventures of John Colton, once a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Colton narrowly escaped from a group of savage Blackfoot Indians in a documented essay, HISTORY and STORIES OF NEBRASKA. This account is dramatically read by actor Paul Giamatti in a supplement Criterion provides for this superlative presentation.

THE NAKED PREY is most definitely a primal experience, beautifully realized by director Cornel Wilde who visualizes with clarity every significant moment with little dialogue, while framing each smartly edited montage to examine the stunning landscape. The warriors speak in their native tongue without the benefit of subtitles. We have to guess what they might be saying, although the eloquence of their body language is universal. The scene where one of the hunting party of warriors comes upon the body of a fallen comrade is heartfelt and quite moving. There is mutual respect for both man and the hunters, and while we root for Wilde to survive, we come to understand the African sensibility that dictates a code of behavior allowing man to co-exist with the force of nature that was nineteenth century Africa.

Criterion has done a brilliant job in bringing this unusual and provocative film to DVD.
The picture is presented in anamorphic Panavision 2:35 aspect ratio, with bright colors and rich tones throughout. The audio, preserved from the original, appears strong and clear.

Among the supplementals are a booklet with an essay by Michael Atkinson and a1970 interview with Wilde. The audio commentary by Stephen Prince is well researched and worth a listen. Cornel was an average actor in his day but really came into his own as a director. His other films, BEACH RED and NO BLADE OF GRASS, are well worth seeking out to appreciate this man’s full contribution to the cinema. This film however is his legacy and one he could be proud of.

On another note, I was sought out by Criterion early on through my editor at Films in Review to hopefully provide the audio interview I had done with Cornel regarding this film and the proposed sequel to THE NAKED PREY. It is my loss that I was unable to connect with the staff over at Criterion in time. Cornel had sought to produce and direct the new film at Paramount. It was his dream to cast his son in the role of the prey, a character based on the son of the “man” in the 1966 original. I am pleased to reproduce some of the transcription of that conversation with Cornel Wilde, which was taped at his condominium in Westwood in the mid 1980’s.

Special Feature:
Audio commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince. “John Colter’s Escape,” a 1913 record of the trapper’s flight from Blackfoot Indians which inspired THE NAKED PREY, read by Paul Giamatti.
Original soundtrack cues created by Cornel Wilde and ethnomusicologist Andrew Tracey, with a written statement by Tracey. Booklet with essay by film critic Michael Atkinson and a 1970 interview with Wilde.


Cornel Wilde and David Del Valle

Cornel Wilde would have been 89 years old this year. His reputation as a director has intensified since his death from Leukemia in 1989 as critics reexamine his legacy. It was his fondest wish that his highly respected film, THE NAKED PREY, be remembered, and I believe his wish has come true with screenings taking place at film festivals all over the world and now the CD of it’s remarkable score. The following is a conversation I had with Wilde about the filming of THE NAKED PREY.

DD: THE NAKED PREY was your fifth feature as a director. How did you come to choose such an offbeat story?

CW: As a boy I remembered seeing a film called THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, about a hunter who must escape a madman who hunts human beings for sport. THE NAKED PREY was originally a radio story about fur trappers and Indians in Wyoming. I bought it and changed the location to Africa and read Stanley’s diary and a bit of Livingston. It had the same excitement I felt when I saw the film DANGEROUS GAME, and my project took on a life of its own.

DD: How difficult was it to produce?

CW: when I tried to set the film up I was turned down by every studio in Hollywood! They thought one man running around in a loincloth was boring. By the time I took it to Paramount, the assistant to the then head of production was a literary agent whom I had known for years, he was the one who told me “this is a gem.” He is the one who sold it to the head of the studio and was able to make it. When the picture came out there were a lot of recriminations at the studios where it had been turned down.

DD: How were the locations in South Africa?

CW: We set up camp 110 miles from the nearest town. We were in a real wilderness area. I had to improvise very often on things I wanted to do. Couldn’t call the studio, had to do with what we had. I wanted to get a shot of the warriors having killed an impala, going to whatever campsite they decided to set up, to show that they do have a meal. I have men in pursuit, to surround the prey and kill it, so I wanted to show them against the sun carrying the impala. I got a carpenter to bring me a big plywood board and on the board I drew the outline of an impala. I had them cut it out and I painted it the same color as the impala. I had the tail made separately. It was on a bolt so that as they walked with it, it swung back and forth as a live tail. In the distance, it looked exactly as if they had a fresh impala.

DD; what kind of actors did you use?

CW: I used a lot of non-actors in my movies. The only actor among the ten pursuers was Ken Gampu. Very good, experienced actor. The other nine were types I picked from over one hundred I did improvisations with. And I had no trouble with them as actors at all. I always gave them something definite, an attainment in every scene that they were involved in. And they were marvelous. They responded so completely, tears would flow, anguish – his friend was killed, and his brother was wounded… The mayor of the town had never acted before. He didn’t want to do it. He was afraid. I said just do what you would do under the circumstances if you were mayor to protect your people no matter what.

DD; this film means a lot to you on a personal level doesn’t it?

CW; Yes it does. It was one of the hardest films I have ever done in the arts, the physical outlay… I always felt that no animal was going to harm me, because I wasn’t out to harm them. It worked almost all the time, but it didn’t with one elephant. We were in a game park and saw this huge bull elephant alone, so I knew he’d been kicked out of a tribe, he was getting old. He was enormous and I wanted a shot of the Man running in the background of this big elephant. I told the cameraman to drive me over in the Land Rover and the game ranger came with us with a gun. We had the camera tied on the Land Rover and I jumped off and started moving towards the elephant. The game ranger started yelling at me “Come back here, don’t go near him” I said ‘I’m just getting in position. He won’t charge me”. At that, the elephant turned and these enormous ears went out, the trunk went up and the elephant charged. The place was a field with holes all over it, it was very uneven terrain. I tried my best to run as fast as I could, but I stepped in a hole and went sprawling flat. I got up and ran. The land Rover started taking off! And here I am with the elephant getting closer and closer. I was able to leap forward and get on the back step, and the elephant chased us for about 100 yards”

DD: That wasn’t the only danger on this shoot I’m sure?

CW: No there were several incidents during that film. At one point I was filming a battle between a 12 foot python and a large African iguana. When I saw that the snake was getting the best of the iguana, I stepped in and tossed a sack over the python’s head while pulling the lizard away from the snake’s death grip. The iguana was not very grateful and grabbed hold of my shin with its sharp teeth, and one of my men had to kill it. I had to be flown back to London to have surgery. I am probably the only actor in Hollywood who has had a shin-lift!”

DD: Could you discuss the music used in THE NAKED PREY?

CW: We used a great deal of music and dances from the N’guni clans—Venda, Xhosa, Tshangaan and Zulu. The music in the film has a history that has been lost in the deepest recesses of tribal memory.

In the late 1980’s Cornel Wilde was negotiating with Paramount to make THE NAKED PREY, PART TWO.

CW: I thought for years of doing a sequel to THE NAKED PREY. I started working on a 38-page treatment. I made notes on things I would want to put into the second film. Then I did a screenplay and sent it to my agent. I am going to play an older version of myself from the film, allowing my real life son to play the Man, out to relive the African adventure for a new generation.

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