Judge Dylan Charles says the naked usually pray for clothing.
"And man, lacking the will to understand other men, became like the beasts and their way of life was his."
Cornel Wilde is a director who has fallen out of mainstream view and his films aren't as well known as they should be. Truth be told, I hadn't even heard of the man before this movie, but Criterion has made me a convert. In fact, I've made it a personal goal to get as many people as possible to watch The Naked Prey so it can get the appreciation it deserves.
Facts of the Case
A safari leader (Cornel Wilde, Lancelot and Guinevere) and his group are ambushed by a group of African warriors (pardon the lack of specificity, the movie isn't very clear about the group either). Wilde is stripped and made to run for his life as a party hunts him across the African wilderness. Wilde is forced to use all of his cunning and strength in his battle against both the hunters and nature itself.
Cornel Wilde based The Naked Prey on the true account of John Colter and his escape from Blackfoot Indians. But instead of Blackfoot Indians, it's (most likely) Zulu warriors, and instead of Missouri, it's South Africa.
The Naked Prey is extremely minimalist. Any and all background information on Wilde's character has been ejected. He doesn't even have a name, he's just Man. His pursuers are given no tribe, no nationality, no real cultural identity; they're just the hunters who happen to share a few traits with the Zulus. Wilde stripped the story to its essences, which works to the film's advantage.
It's all about the Man, all alone, reduced to his bare essentials. His struggle is shot against the backdrop of the African landscape. Beautiful panoramic shots of harsh plains, lush forest, and wide open skies. But the beauty is marred by the violence. The violence of animals killing one another to stay alive, the violence of slavers, the violence of the whites and Zulus battling. Wilde intercuts scenes of the Man and his pursuers with scenes of lions killing wildebeests and snakes killing birds. It's in this way that Wilde examines humanity's often violent interactions with one another. Are we any better than the lion or the snake? Can we rise above nature or are we just as red in tooth and claw as the rest of the animal kingdom? It's these questions that Wilde asks and answers by the end of the film.
Wilde has taken pains to make sure that the native peoples aren't just cardboard cutouts, simply existing as obstacles for the Man to overcome. The hunters are actually given depth and motivation and emotions. They're not just savages living by some barbarian code; they're part of a people that has a certain way of life that the Man has intruded upon. The main hunter, played by Ken Gampu, is especially nuanced, and makes a worthy antagonist for Wilde's Man.
Criterion has provided a few great features. My personal favorite was the commentary by film historian Stephen Prince. He's a fountain of information and anecdotes. Plus he only makes one Wilde/wild pun the entire time, which shows more restraint than most I think. His interpretations of the film's themes are, well, much more in-depth than my own and you oughtta listen to it.
And then there's a reading of "John Colter's Escape," the story The Naked Prey was based on. And since the reading is done by Paul Giamatti, there's no reason why you shouldn't listen to that too.
For fans of the soundtrack, they have the whole thing on the disc for your listening pleasure as well as a little essay written by the composer, Andrew Tracey. All of the music in The Naked Prey was more or less authentic, actual songs and instruments from that region.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Wilde has made a fairly progressive film here in showing natives as being more than just barbaric savages, there are moments where The Naked Prey slips back into those days of olde where White Man good, Black Man bad. One scene in particular made me go thbb, where the leader of the hunting party dispatches one of his own men for disobeying him, an act that seems out of place considering the care that Wilde went to in showing the natives as three-dimensional human beings who value the lives of their comrades.
Wilde's The Naked Prey is a great minimalist film that examines the nature of humanity and its struggle with itself. Lean and brutal, it's honest and keen to answer the questions it raises.
Criterion has done a great service in its presentation and I hope to see more of Wilde's films through them.
The Naked Prey is guilty of indecent exposure.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Film Scholar Stephen Prince
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