Monday 14 November 2011

The Naked Prey (1966)

THE NAKED PREY is an American adventure film that was directed by and stars Cornel Wilde.  It was distributed by Paramount and premiered in 1966.  Alongside Wilde, the film features Gert van den Bergh and Ken Gampu.  Set in South Africa during the colonial era, it tells the story of a white safari leader who along with his party is captured by a tribe whom they had earlier insulted by not offering gifts as a toll for passing through their territory.  The other members of the party are executed in bizarre ritualistic fashion but, because he had attempted to do the right thing before being overruled by a racist South African, the safari leader is given the chance to win his freedom.  He is stripped naked and taken to the edge of the tribal village by a group of young warriors; there an arrow is fired into the distance.  He is allowed a head start as far as the arrow flew and then, one by one, the warriors follow to hunt him down.

Cornel Wilde is someone of whom you don't hear very much these days but he was a real oddity among Hollywood stars and his life and career are absolutely fascinating.  Born Kornel Weisz in 1912 in what was then Hungary but is now Slovakia, his family emigrated to the US in 1920.  He was evidently a gifted young man: he won a medical scholarship to Columbia University and qualified for the US Olympic fencing team in 1936, but decided to pursue an acting career instead.

Gert van den Bergh (L) and Cornel Wilde (R)
His big break came when he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Chopin in A SONG TO REMEMBER (1945).  After that he carved out a decent career for himself in Hollywood, appearing in a mixture of movies that made good use of his athleticism and swarthy good looks.  The first film of his that I remember seeing is THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (1952) which, typical of his career, has him as a trapeze artist in a circus show; it's an indicator of how popular a star he was that he was billed above Charlton Heston and James Stewart.

He directed his first feature in 1955 and went on to direct eight others over the next twenty years.  Of those that I have seen, it's quite apparent that Wilde's personal interests are writ large in his films: rugged individualism, physical fitness, honour, and the nature of the bonds between men.  THE NAKED PREY is a case in point.  Wilde was in his fifties when he made this movie and he's on screen for virtually the entire movie, often clad only in a loincloth (or less) and really puts himself through the wringer.

Shot on location in a variety of southern African countries, the film strives for a rough authenticity and, in my view, achieves it.  I'm not going to pretend that the depiction of colonial dominion and its effects are dealt with in a profound or even sophisticated way but it is dealt with and the film makes its point in a basic but effective manner.  Essentially, while not denying that men (particularly hunters) have a right to go where they wish, the film shows that traditions and customs are to be respected absolutely; the punishments meted out to transgressors may be unusual but they are just according to local law.  There is also a powerful sequence in which a gang of slave-raiders attack a tribal village.

What I liked about the film was that, unlike many adventure films, it uses the locations as more than merely a pretty backdrop (although there are some stunning shots of the landscape) and uses the indigenous people as more than merely cannon fodder.  Wilde interacts with the environment rather than just acting in front of it.  Similarly, the tribesmen hunting him are shown to be individuals rather than just villains and there are a couple of sequences which demonstrate this well.  First, they bicker among themselves about whether they should carry on with the hunt - some are exhausted, some are frightened, some overcome with grief at the loss of their companions.  And in a second sequence, they act as a group to assist one of their number who has been bitten by a snake.

I ought to say though that the film isn't preachy, at least not in a moralistic way.  What it is is a tense, gripping, matter-of-fact adventure movie of a sort that was very popular in the '50s and '60s but which has fallen out of favour.  I would recommend it heartily, all the more so because it is available through the peerless Criterion Collection so you know you'll get a pristine print and plenty of instructive extras.  I would also recommend checking out the three films Wilde directed after this one.  BEACH RED (1967) is a graphic WW2 movie that pre-dates the overwhelming opening of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1997); NO BLADE OF GRASS (1970) is a flawed but interesting post-apocalypse drama; and SHARK'S TREASURE (1975) a bizarre adventure movie featuring the great Yaphet Kotto.

Film anorak notes:
  • Gert van den Bergh who plays the hunter who causes all of his party's troubles plays Adendorff ("They're saluting fellow braves!") in ZULU (1962).
  • Ken Gampu, who plays the leader of the hunting tribesmen, featured in a lot of South African-shot movies in the '60s and '70s, including THE DEATH OF A SNOWMAN (1978), THE WILD GEESE (1978) and ZULU DAWN (1979).

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