Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey (1966) is a great movie, as elemental, straightforward, stripped down, and engrossing as it is possible to imagine: fast-paced, riveting, harrowing, savage.
Shot entirely in Africa in Panavision (a widescreen cinematographic process) and lush Eastmancolor, it relates the story of a 19th-century European ivory-hunting safari captured and brutally butchered by natives, and its sole survivor, the guide “Man”—the only identification provided for Wilde’s character—who is stripped naked, given a brief head start, and then murderously pursued as human prey by ten savages across the high, trackless veld, woodlands, and stony hills of southern Africa as he desperately attempts to reach a fort, the remote outpost from which he’d departed days before.
As teenagers, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen made a version of The Naked Prey on a Super-8 home movie camera.
Director Mel Gibson’s Mayan chase film Apocalypto (2006) is widely recognized as having been influenced by The Naked Prey. And though Apocalypto is good, Wilde’s film is much better.
In Darkest Africa
The movie opens as a handful of white men, including experienced guide Wilde, accompanied by a large retinue of black bearers, leave the fort on an ivory hunting expedition.
From the beginning, the elemental nature of the film is evident.
The financier of the safari is an arrogant, bullheaded, tightfisted white businessman-hunter portrayed by South African actor Gert Van den Bergh. Like some animals, or the movie’s savage black tribe, he enjoys killing for the sake of killing; he shoots elephants even when they have no tusks.
During a pause, the hunters relax. The financier, sipping liquor from a flask, invites Wilde to become a partner in his next venture—a slaving expedition—but Wilde declines, telling him that this is his last safari, and he intends to settle down on his farm.
They next encounter a party of blacks demanding gifts in return for crossing their territory. This is customary, and Wilde is willing to oblige. But, in a perfectly logical, character-driven scene, the obstinate financier, invariably contemptuous of others, refuses to pay tribute.
Despite his superior wilderness knowledge and prudent character, Wilde cannot reason with the man, and the party rudely pushes past the native band. This rash behavior will quickly bring disaster down upon their heads.
The tense meeting between the two groups occurs just 6 minutes into the film.
The elephant hunt commences, and many great beasts are killed in vivid scenes shown in explicit detail.
When the killing is over, the native employees dress the dead animals as Wilde and the financier eat their meal. The financier, flush from the hunt, is mildly intoxicated.
Meanwhile, the hostile warriors stealthily surround the camp. At a signal they ambush the unprepared group, killing many and capturing others, including three white men and numerous blacks. This scene occurs 10 minutes into the movie, illustrating how fast-paced it is.
The captives are taken to the tribe’s village. The substantial contingent of black bearers and workers are not spared, but hideously butchered: the tribesmen skewer some with spears and lop the heads off of others with large blades.
To the merry accompaniment of noisemakers, the expedition’s trade goods, colorful, expensive fabrics symbolic of the well-crafted accoutrements of civilization, are ripped apart and anarchically tossed into the air, reducing everything to junk within seconds.
One man is methodically encased by exuberant villagers in layer upon layer of clay and dung then baked alive.
The boorish financier is tied, prostrate, to stakes in the ground, his head forced upward and backward by ropes, so that a golden cobra trapped in a semicircle of fire in front of him slithers over and bites his face.
The safari overseer, played by South African actor Patrick Mynhardt, is presented to the bare-breasted women of the tribe, who bind his limbs with sticks, adorn him with feathers, and force him to hop humiliatingly about like a chicken as the crowd roars with laughter.
Finally he topples over and the women all converge on his trussed up figure with pointed sticks and begin stabbing him repeatedly. A shot from above shows the womens’ arms raised in unison and then plunging down again and again as they pierce the helpless man.
Predators and Prey
Because he had tried to persuade the safari boss to pay tribute, Man alone, after being forced to observe the gratuitous humiliation, torture, and butchery of Europeans and black bearers alike, is temporarily spared.
Stripped of his clothing and weapons, he is given a brief, 10-second head start before being hunted down for sport by ten young pursuers.
To the surprise and consternation of the group, Man kills the first hunter who comes after him with the very spear the man hurled at him.
Man kills several others along the way, pausing only briefly to loot anything he can use from their bodies before continuing his flight.As the distance from the village lengthens and the pursuit grows longer and more arduous, hunters begin to die from snake bites and other natural hazards.
Two are killed by their own companions as casualties mount and internecine feuds erupt among members of the group.
Gradually, the ranks of Man’s pursuers thin.
In a memorable scene, Man, nearly overtaken by the cold-blooded killers, sets fire to a wide swath of dry brush and tall grass to wall them off from him.
As he watches from a hillside the savages’ desperate, unsuccessful attempts to penetrate the searing wall of flame, he leaps for joy again and again, shouting at the top of his lungs, “Hey you devils! Burn, burn you devils!”
In another scene Man encounters the village of a different tribe. He creeps close, hoping to poach some cooked meat after the villagers fall asleep or wander away from the fire, but is forced to bide his time.
Suddenly, the village is attacked by a large group of slave traders, who proceed to kill or capture the inhabitants. Though the raiding party is led by Arabs, most of the attackers are black.
Man cannot escape without being seen, so he dodges to a superior hiding place, where he encounters a child also hiding, a little girl. (Yes, it is a girl, not a boy.)
As the main contingent of raiders quickly subdues the unprepared villagers, ruthlessly slaying many in the process, a second contingent carefully scours the periphery of the camp, searching for escapees. It is only a matter of time before they will discover both Man and child.
Signaling for the child to remain still, Man darts from his place of concealment into the midst of the turmoil, drawing the searchers after him. There was no other option available.
He lays into the raiders berserker-style, but is quickly overwhelmed. Ultimately he escapes by leaping into a treacherous river. Later he is rescued by the little girl whose life he saved. They strike up a brief, warm friendship before parting.
Although this scene works on a humanitarian level, and is thus frequently cited by liberal critics, it remains consistent with the survivalist theme of the movie as a whole.
And no commentator ever mentions the song Wilde jovially sings to (and about) his diminutive companion—”Little Brown Jug.”
Throughout Man’s extended ordeal we vicariously experience the same gamut of primal psychological and physical stresses he does: hunger, thirst, fierce daytime heat, bone-chilling nighttime cold, exhaustion, sleep, mosquitoes, and continuous threats from deadly animals and human predators.
Although the camera’s point of view during the extended chase sequence moves continuously between Man, his predator-pursuers, the beautiful South African landscape, and shots of wild animals enacting the hunter/prey dynamic—”the pattern of repose, pursuit, sudden death and then repose”—that is a metaphor for the film, the story’s subjective point of view never strays from its protagonist, Man.
Every movie presents unique challenges to its makers.
At the extreme, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and Rear Window utilized highly restricted sets, and Rope took place in real time, as if shot in one continuous take.
The Naked Prey presented a similar difficulty. Since the cross country chase consumes over one hour of the 90 minute film, the challenge was to make the pursuit different and exciting all the time, so that each section of the chase possessed a different kind of tension, anticipation, and suspense.
Wilde’s direction, the original screenplay by Clint Johnston and Don Peters, and the fast-paced editing superbly meet this challenge.
Johnston’s and Peters’s script, later nominated for an Academy Award, was based on a true story about an early American trapper named John Colter, who was pursued as human prey across 200 miles of trackless wilderness in Wyoming-Montana by Blackfoot Indians in 1809.
Colter, the first American mountain man, had been a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition that crossed the continent to the Pacific Ocean. He may well be the most amazing frontiersman-nobody’s-ever-heard-of, not only because of his run, but because of his entire, colorful life story.
Cornel Wilde learned of it from a radio play adapted from “John Colter’s Escape,” a 1913 account written by Addison Erwin Sheldon. (Here is Sheldon’s account read by an amateur poster on YouTube [4.5 mins.].)
Wilde bought the rights to the story and changed the setting to Africa.
One of the most common tropes used by anti-white reviewers, including movie critic Roger Ebert in 1966, is that no soft, civilized white man could possibly survive such an ordeal, pitted against tough, brave, morally and physically superior savages in their native habitat. (Ebert, a Negrophile, married a black woman.)
Another widely-used liberal stratagem claims Wilde “humanized” the blacks by showing their displays of grief at the deaths of their companions, while displaying little emotion in his emblematic role as (white) Man.
Both elements, however, were already present in Colter’s original story. Moreover, anyone who knows anything about the history of the frontier knows that whites on many occasions bested natives everywhere on equal, or even disadvantageous, terms. That’s life.
The Naked Prey‘s auteur was unquestionably producer-director-star Cornell Wilde.
Though Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia (3rd ed., 1998), like many sources, mistakenly says he was born in New York City in 1915 “to Hungarian-Czech parents,” Kornél Lajos Weisz was in fact born in 1912 in Hungary (now Slovakia) to Hungarian Jewish parents. He came to the US at age 7 in 1920, where his name was Americanized to Cornelius Louis Wilde.
According to most accounts, Wilde attended the City College of New York (CCNY) as a pre-med student and won a scholarship to the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University.
He is also said to have qualified for the US fencing team prior to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but quit before the games in order to join the theater. He reportedly acted on Broadway between 1935 and 1940.
In Hollywood films from 1940 on, Wilde became well-known as a swashbuckler and in athletic action roles (e.g., the trapeze artist The Great Sebastian, “the debonair King of the Air,” in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952).
In 1955 Wilde formed his own production company, Theodora Productions (which co-produced The Naked Prey with producer-cinematographer Sven Persson), to make his own pictures, which were mostly shot abroad on limited budgets.
Tall, dark, and with a powerful physique, Wilde was muscular, athletic, and fitness-conscious all his life. When The Naked Prey was filmed in the winter of 1964–65, he was 52 years old and still in tremendous physical shape.
Although Wilde became ill from exhaustion and lost a significant amount of weight during filming, he believed this enhanced the authenticity of his performance.
H.A.R. Thomson’s stunning widescreen color cinematography perfectly captures the African setting.
The film was shot entirely on location at Sibasa, Northern Transvaal; the Kruger National Park on the Mozambique frontier; Bechuanaland; and Southern Rhodesia.
The producers thanked the South African Government “for their whole-hearted cooperation” in the film’s production. The Prime Minister of South Africa at the time was the legendary Hendrik Verwoerd, felled by an assassin a few months after filming was completed.
The Naked Prey is a highly visual film with little dialogue—the dialogue continuity script was only nine pages long. In some ways the movie resembles, or harks back to, silent films.
What little dialogue there is is mostly African, with no dubbing or subtitles provided to translate what is being said. Viewers are thrown back upon behavior, tone, expression, and other subconscious cues to interpret meaning.
A talented linguist and mimic, Wilde had an ear for languages, as evidenced when he converses (or purports to converse) in several African dialects.
The score consists of African music played by Aricans on African instruments. Recorded partly in the field and partly in the studio, the dead-ringer sound was created solely by native percussion instruments.
The authenticity of the music was due to the knowledge and expertise of white South African musical adviser Andrew Tracey, a prominent ethnomusicologist whose father, Hugh Tracey (1903–1977), pioneered the study of traditional African music in the 1920s–1970s.
Edwin Astley, the English composer of well-known scores for British TV shows The Saint and Danger Man, also reportedly played an (uncredited) role in arranging the music.
Although like most scores it operates on a subliminal level, the music provides an effective psychological-emotional underpinning to the story.
The Naked Prey theme song at the beginning of the movie is sung by the film’s principal African warriors.
Idée Fixe: Good Africans, Evil White Men
Needless to say, liberals have problems with The Naked Prey.
Probably the reason the film is not unqualifiedly acknowledged as a classic is because of the race angle. You could critique much of contemporary race psychology by dissecting reactions to this movie.
For example, one commentator wrote:
I almost turned the movie off during the torture scenes, because everything in them seemed to be trying to emphasize the savagery, even to the point of suggesting the natives as quite literally bloodthirsty. It’s ugly stuff, sadistic and unsettling—a person covered in clay and then baked alive is an image I won’t soon forget.
He wanted such scenes shown only after the insertion of others displaying white brutality, thus justifying (in his mind) sadistic black cruelty against whites.
Unacknowledged censorship of selected scenes in TV broadcasts and VHS and DVD recordings has also occurred. In particular, scenes of black savagery against the white hunters have been excised without audiences or consumers being alerted to the bowdlerism.
The Naked Prey is relentlessly Darwinian in its pitting of white man against black in an unflinching, lightning-fast tale of action, adventure, mortal combat, and survival.
It is a stripped-to-the-bone story of man against nature, tested to the limits of his strength, endurance, resourcefulness, and cunning.
The movie can be interpreted as portraying the fierce resistance of the human spirit to the forces of primitivism, darkness, savagery, and disintegration engulfing our world and devouring the heart of Western civilization.
In this light, it is about the primal, unflinching determination of whites to survive by any means necessary against any mortal foe.