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Animal Kingdom: Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey (Criterion Collection)

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By Jeremy Carr.

The opening narration of The Naked Prey (1965) sets the scene in the African wilderness and the nature of humanity in this volatile land, where white men besiege the region in search of tusks and slaves. It is a cruel and bloody backstory, humanity as vicious and portending a bestial way of life.

Like the rash of “When Nature Attacks” movies released in the decade to come (1972’s Frogs, 1976’s The Food of the Gods, and 1977’s Kingdom of the Spiders, to name a few of the best), this 1965 action-adventure film initially advances the notion that what man hath wrought upon the earth will be his ultimate undoing. In this case, it’s an arrogant, merciless ivory hunter played by Gert Van den Bergh who initiates the reckoning. Known only as the “2nd Man,” engaged in a barbaric safari and contemplating the “lucrative” potential of the slave trade, this ugly European boasts of his kill – 14 elephants butchered in one gruesome hunt – declaring as he beams with pride from drink, “Did you see that brain shot!” Less impressed, though nevertheless complicit in his own way, is “Man,” the expedition’s guide, played by The Naked Prey’s producer and director, Cornel Wilde.

The environmental assault, specifically the observable loss of animal life, is compounded by the 2nd Man’s insulting behavior toward the natives, as he shirks local protocol and upsets the tribe. Everything points to perilous repercussions, inducing an anxiety underscored by Man’s expressive trepidation. This, in turn, stimulates the mounting tension of the film generally, as Man’s steady, solemn realization signals the point where tempers have flared beyond reduction, producing a rigid escalation expertly controlled by Wilde the actor and director. And sure enough, while it isn’t killer arachnids or radiated rodents, a band of slighted aboriginals strikes back. In what is an overwhelming, riveting, and terrifying sequence, with a widescreen mass of shrieking, clamoring inhabitants, the hunters are captured, humiliated, tortured (rather inventively in one blazing case), and killed. All, that is, except for Man, who is granted enticing liberation – “The Chance of the Lion” – with the caveat that his apparent freedom is part of an indigenous game, a chase with a typically fatal outcome.

Naked 02Such as it is, in the conventional sense at least, Man’s escape and subsequent survival provides the fundamental narrative of The Naked Prey, as for nearly an hour, he must traverse the South African veldt, outrunning his warrior pursuers, subsisting on whatever plant and animal life he can wrangle, and enduring assorted intrinsic obstacles. Advancing to the looming sound of tribal chants, drums, wooded instruments, and ecological accompaniments, The Naked Prey artfully angles a classic “last man” scenario, with a lone protagonist facing threats at every turn (insects, lizards, scorpions, lions, etc.), resorting to his baser instincts, living off the land, weaponizing his surroundings and scavenging for food: Man eats a snail, gags at first, then comically nods – not bad, not bad – picking his teeth afterwards with a dislodging thorn. From the expedient elements of fire and smoke to the primeval quest for raw nourishment and the purity of cleansing, refreshing water, The Naked Prey depicts a Zimbabwe backdrop that is more than simply some exotic, photogenic panorama (though its diverse, arresting landscape does improve periods of Man’s more tedious wanderings). The location, again anticipating those cult features of the 1970s, is also a force unto itself. When Man and his impinging Caucasian ilk enter this isolated territory, they must prepare for the travails of rough terrain, wild beasts, blistering sunlight, sweltering heat, and debilitating aridity. Owing to Wilde’s direction and his compelling performance, as well as H.A.R. Thomson’s searing cinematography, The Naked Prey presents graphic phases of necessarily natural integration, as Man’s glazed flesh begins to reflect the sandy, yellow bush and the scorched, coarse soil. Magnifying the oppressive gravity of his predicament, Man’s restless, panicked plight is juxtaposed with the collected maneuvering of the natives, their protracted progress confirming a contrasting degree of control and confidence. As Man crosses a punishing topography, littered with the skulls of animals that have likewise plodded his path and perished along the way, the editing by Roger Cherrill generates the measured momentum of an unending, languid afternoon, menacing and with dire consequences.

In an essay for the Criterion Collection, Michael Atkinson states that The Naked Prey is “purified of character, traditional dramatics, and language … [with] the blunt force of a campfire myth.” Written by Clint Johnston and Don Peters, their sparse screenplay earning a surprising Academy Award nomination (the dialogue continuity script was apparently just nine pages long), The Naked Prey was fittingly inspired by the story of explorer and trapper John Colter, who was forced to negotiate the Wyoming frontier of 1809 with Blackfoot warriors on his trail, persevering against the odds and killing more than a few tribesmen in the process, or so the legend goes. As far as what attracted Wilde to the project, in a Films and Filming interview excerpted with the Criterion release, he points to the “reliance upon the visuals…That and the fact that it had a realistic quality, and that I could find a theme in it to work toward all the time.” In producing a film that is accordingly “lean, unrelentingly physical and obsessively visual,” as Stephen Price remarks during his exceptionally informative commentary, Wilde impresses in every regard. While his character is strong and clever, skilled and attuned to the sounds and signs of peril and profit, the actor himself is an astonishing specimen. More than 50 years old at the time, and frequently sick during production, Wilde’s impressive athleticism (he was an Olympic caliber fencer) lends credence as Man is stripped bare – judiciously so, of course, but not withholding due emphasis on his chiseled physique – and embarks on an exhausting effort of endurance, stealthy headway, and hand-to-hand combat.

Naked 03“The action was inherent,” adds the Hungarian-born Wilde, acting here in what is essentially a one-man show, “but so was what it had to say: that man must learn to understand his fellow man, no matter how different he is, or all men will live like the animals in the jungle.” To that end, The Naked Prey’s finale yields a reprieve of fleeting sensitivity. Having already seen Man speak the native dialect and engage in friendly banter with key tribal representatives, his charming interaction with a young child produces a notable shift in tone, so much so it seems a whole new film could grow from the digression. It is a pleasant and warm parenthesis, just before the picture closes in comparably anticlimactic fashion. To this point, though, the film is just what Wilde envisioned, with the sort of visceral bloodletting rare for its time. “Cornel Wilde made procedurals of uncivilized survival,” writes Atkinson, “in a visual syntax that ranges from comic-strip splat to outright gut punch.” Citing Beach Red (1967) and No Blade of Grass (1970), Atkinson argues these are films that “make up an ersatz triptych of human self-hate at three evolutionary stages: primal, ‘civilized,’ and postcivilized (it may very well have been Wilde’s point that there’s precious little difference between them).”

Less enthused by this Paramount release, however, were critics like Roger Ebert, who dismissed the picture as “pure fantasy,” and the New York Times’s Robert Alden, whose review called the film “poor and tasteless motion-picture entertainment,” adding “A fundamental weakness stems from the fact that its protagonist is barely introduced to the audience.” Of course, it is exactly this, a degree of anonymity and a broad, indefinite application, that forms part of The Naked Prey’s allegorical thesis: Man is no man in particular, but is a critical vessel for timeless barbarity and collective existence. Wilde, who according to Jeff Stafford considered The Naked Prey his favorite movie and was planning a sequel to it when he died in 1989, posits predatory parallels between cross-tribal hostilities, conflicts between races, and the vicious interspecies inserts seen throughout the picture. While there are certainly political undertones concerning the use of amateur black actors during the time of apartheid, to say nothing of its colonialist refrains and its civil rights-era implications (all of which are discussed with respectable insight by Prince), “the ethics of the film are not political,” as Atkinson argues. “In Wilde’s world, it’s every man for himself, every warrior for his own justification, and God against them all.”

Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.

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