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Although he directed and produced eight feature films during his career, Cornel Wilde was better known to movie audiences as an actor who excelled in swashbucklers (At Sword's Point, 1952) and athletic action roles (The Greatest Show on Earth, 1952). Only now, almost twenty years after his death, is his work as a director being reappraised as some of the most original and compelling work in the American cinema with his fifth feature, The Naked Prey (1966), regarded as possibly his finest achievement.
Bearing similarities to the 1932 film version of Richard Edward Connell's short story, The Most Dangerous Game, a movie that had a profound effect on Wilde as a young boy, The Naked Prey follows a safari guide (Wilde) as he leads his party through the South African jungle. When the arrogant ivory hunter (Gert Van den Bergh), who is financing the safari, refuses to pay homage to a group of tribesmen for entering their territory, there is bloody retribution. Only the safari guide is allowed to live...if he can outrun a group of armed warriors in pursuit. He is given a brief head start and then the chase begins, one which will test his strength, endurance and cunning repeatedly as he attempts to reach safety.
Cornel Wilde began the project in earnest after reading a story taken from a radio play that was, in turn, an adaptation of "John Colter's Escape," a 1913 record of a fur trapper's escape from Blackfoot Indians in Wyoming. According to Wilde, "I bought it, changed the site to Africa and read Stanley's diary and some material by Livingstone. The main idea was using man as a beast and hunting him." It was Wilde's intention to make The Naked Prey a movie that told its story through visual terms and little dialogue, a fact that is borne out by the dialogue continuity script which was only nine pages long.
According to an interview with Gordon Cow for Films and Filming there were also other reasons why he wanted to make the movie: "This reliance upon the visuals attracted me, of course. 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. The action was inherent, 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. If you apply the yardstick of asking yourself continually whether what you are doing is proving a thesis, then you remove all extraneous things. The Naked Prey was essentially a motion picture, instead of a transplanted play. Not that I think dialogue films are not true motion pictures. They certainly can be, because even in a room you can do wonderful things with a camera. But the constant movement in The Naked Prey really appealed to me, and the challenge of keeping it different all the time, so that each section of the chase had a different kind of excitement in it."
In the winter of 1964-65, Wilde, his wife, actress Jean Wallace, and co-producer Sven Persson traveled to Northern Transvaal to begin filming The Naked Prey with location shooting in the Kruger National Park, Botswana, Mozambique and Rhodesia. Almost immediately the cast and crew were made aware of the dangers of making a movie in the wilds. The unit manager was bitten by a cobra on the second day of production and even Wilde himself had two close calls. One when a bull elephant tried to attack his land rover and another when he was injured by an iguana during the lizard-python fight sequence. When it became obvious the iguana was starting to kill the snake, Wilde stepped in to rescue the python and the agitated iguana chomped down on the director's shin instead, refusing to let go until it was killed. Wilde was then flown back to London for medical treatment where he received tetanus shots and plastic surgery on his mutilated skin. "I'm probably the only actor in town who has had a shin lift," he joked from his hospital bed.
Back on location for The Naked Prey, Wilde made such a favorable impression on a local tribal chieftain that he was offered a fifteen-year-old girl as a wife. "But I have a wife," Cornel protested. "I have a wife; she's here with me." The chieftain had a hard time believing Wilde could be happy with one wife since it was common in his tribe to have six but the situation was resolved amicably.
Overall, the African filming had been a huge success although Wilde became ill from sheer exhaustion at one point and lost a good deal of weight. When you see him on the screen, however, it's hard to believe that you are looking at a man who was fifty-four at the time of filming. His chiseled body and physical grace (acquired from many years as a fencing champion) look like that of a much younger man.
The most important aspect of Wilde's location filming, however, was the fact that he was allowed to make a film using black actors (many of the tribesmen were non-professionals) and local residents at a time when South Africa was under apartheid, a system of legalized segregation enforced by government officials whose ancestors were Dutch and British colonialists. The Naked Prey marked the second film appearance of Ken Gampu (in the role of the head warrior) who is considered the first Black African film star. But even though he was allowed to appear on screen with white actors at the time, Gampu was not allowed to share quarters or socialize with his white co-stars and slept in a car at night during the filming of The Naked Prey.
From a historical and cultural perspective, Wilde's film is particularly fascinating now when you consider it was made while the Black power movement in America was on the rise and South Africa's apartheid government was firmly entrenched (it would be dismantled in 1994 through elections). Despite the fact that Wilde is the title character of the film, he devotes equal screen time to humanizing and developing his pursuers who are given moments of emotional expression that the safari guide rarely displays. The film's one brief interlude of compassion occurs when the hunted guide is rescued from drowning by a young African girl who befriends him for a brief time. And the only aspect of The Naked Prey which strains credibility to some degree is the fact that an outsider, regardless of his physical prowess, would be more likely to survive and outwit the pursuing tribesmen who are experts on their own terrain and survivalists of the first order.
The Naked Prey had its world premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival on June 3, 1965 and garnered glowing reviews from most film critics during its theatrical release in the U.S. Time magazine noted that the film "gathers fierce momentum as a classic, single-minded epic of survival with no time out for fainthearted blondes or false heroics." Variety stated the "Film is an artistic achievement of which producer-director-star Cornel Wilde and associates can be justifiably proud..." Judith Crist of the "NBC Today Show" said, "The Naked Prey is one of the most exciting chase movies to come our way." The only dissenter appeared to be The New York Times reviewer who called it "a poor and tasteless motion-picture entertainment," adding, "It is disgusting stuff and the wise viewer will get out of the theatre even before the chase has began."
It is true that the scenes of violence in The Naked Prey, particularly the deaths of Wilde's safari companions, are extremely gruesome and intense for 1966 but, in the context of the story, it seems necessary and is still potent today. Although the movie certainly warranted more recognition than it received when first released, it did garner an Oscar® nomination for Best Story and Screenplay, Written Directly for the Screen. It should have also received nominations for H.A.R. Thomson's stunning color cinematography and the authentic African music score, composed of tribal songs captured in the field by Wilde, and studio recordings with African musicians (These recordings have since been preserved by the Smithsonian).
Some final bits of trivia:
- Some film scholars consider The Naked Prey the first in an unofficial trilogy of films by Wilde about survival in a hostile universe; the other two are Beach Red (1967), a World War II drama, and No Blade of Grass (1970), a futuristic end-of-the-world thriller.
- Wilde considered The Naked Prey his favorite movie and was planning a sequel to it when he died in 1989.
- Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (2006) is considered by some to be an informal remake of Wilde's film.- The opening credit sequence of The Naked Prey features paintings created by South African artist Andrew T. Motjuoadi.
- The 1970 black comedy Where's Poppa? contains an in-joke about Wilde's film when George Segal is chased through Central Park at night by a black gang that references this movie.
Producer: Sven Persson, Cornel Wilde
Director: Cornel Wilde
Screenplay: Clint Johnston, Don Peters
Cinematography: H.A.R. Thomson
Film Editing: Roger Cherrill
Cast: The Man (Cornel Wilde), Gert Van den Bergh (Man #2), Ken Gampu (Leader of the warriors), Patrick Mynhardt (Safari overseer), Bella Randles (Little girl), Morrison Gampu (Tribe leader).
by Jeff Stafford
The Swashbucklers by James Robert Parish
The Criterion Collection DVD booklet for The Naked Prey with commentary by Stephen Prince