Saturday, 5 March 2011
The Naked Prey
The Naked Prey (1966) dir. Cornel Wilde
Starring: Cornel Wilde, Ken Gampu, Gert Van Der Berg
By Alan Bacchus
One of the unique experiments of the 1960’s is Cornel Wilde’s ambitious parable of culture and conflict, “The Naked Prey”. A remarkably simple concept - a British game hunter is captured by African natives for torture, escapes and has to fight the harshness of the African environment while in flight from his pursuers. The result is a 90min chase film which comments on the fragile state of our civilization with the same irony as “The Most Dangerous Game”. "Lord of the Flies”, and “Planet of the Apes”. The film would also become the main influence for Mel Gibson to make his own version of the story, "Apocalypto".
The stripped down narrative and decidedly unheroic and matter-of-fact approach to the action runs counter to the Hollywood notion of popular entertainment. But it was made in 1966 and reflects the experimentation with independent filmmaking in the 60's.
In the opening act, we see a small group of British hunters gaming on the African plains, guided by armed African soldiers as they go about killing elephants indescriminantly. The stock footage used to visualize this is horrific, but effective in characterizing the foreigners as exploiters. When the group is caught by a rival tribe, the Africans are killed and the British mocked in an elaborately staged torture ritual. It features some of the most grotesque and demeaning torture I’ve seen on screen. At one point one of the officers is covered in clay, which after hardenening into a solid is baked like pottery on a spigot over an open fire.
In a role only named as 'the man' Cornel Wilde is stripped down and made to play a game of chase against the tribesman. Wilde manages to escape the compound and out into the wilderness where the chase would continue. The film is consistently raw and brutal. Wilde continually reminds us of the base themes of conflict and survival by intercutting the action with scenes of animals preying on each other.. The man fights off a number of assailants with brutal, uncompromising and realistic force, rarely showing emotion, relying on adrenaline and instinct to keep him moving forward.
Wilde trusts the innate drama of the situation to pull us through the entire film without dialogue or traditional melodramatic goals. I remember in "Cast Away" a similar film about isolation and survival Robert Zemeckis felt the need to add in an inanimate volleyball for Tom Hanks to talk to get some dialogue in. And even Gibson's "Apocalypto" needed to add a pregnant wife for the man to save to amplify the stakes.
In each of these cases, talented filmmakers refused to trust their audiences to believe in the situation. In "The Naked Prey" we never get the sense that the man will escape, or that we even want him to escape. The pursuers are never categorized as evil, only that the chase is the natural order of this world. And the final confrontation results in a small but truthful moment of respect between the two combatants.
The film was the brainchild of maverick producer/director/actor Cornel Wilde, a studio player in the 1940's who made the rare transition into producing and directing in the 1950's and 60's - a path not unlike the career Mel Gibson. "The Naked Prey" was the first of an unofficial trilogy survival, followed by his WWII set "Beach Red" (1967) and his near future apocalypse film "No Blade of Grass" (1970).
"The Naked Prey" is available through the prestigious Criterion Collection on DVD.