Sunday 24 May 2015


(Cornel Wilde, 1965)

The Naked Prey was a big step forward for its actor-director Cornel Wilde and is probably his most fondly remembered film today. Adapted from the story of the Trapper John Colter and his pursuit through Wyoming by Blackfoot Indians, the film relocates the action to Africa. Wilde is a hunter guiding a party of privileged white men through the Savannah when they cross and greviously offend a local tribe. The tribe attack the party, kill everybody else (in some excrutiatingly inventive ways), and strip Wilde naked before sending him racing off alone, a group of them prepared to hunt after him for sport. But Wilde is not prepared to go so easily, and he fights back as he flees, steadily evening things up. Its an utterly distinctive and interesting film, which is an uncomfortable watch in its opening act, for its casual cultural assumptions and stiff dramatics. Once it becomes a chase movie, Wilde strips the narrative down entirely until the action is brutal, the setting somewhat elemental, the characterisation incisive and sparing - everything is cast aside in a rush of narrative momentum. Wilde's character is never even given a name. He is just "the man", an obvious nod to the wider meaning Wilde was searching for. As a director, he had a great eye for action, and the action scenes here are all tense and exciting as Wilde's character steadily eliminates his hunters one by one. And those hunters are humanised - we see them fight amongst themselves, experience doubt and anger - though never anything less than relentless and frightening. For all their awkwardness, the film's early scenes seem to criticise the obvious racism of the colonial ruling class, and its use of the songs of the African Nguni tribe was far ahead of its time for a Hollywood film.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of The Naked Prey is that it focuses upon the chase at its centre until that chase becomes a subject worthy of such examination. It is revealed as a complex ritual, a metaphor for human survival in the world, for man's relationship with his environment, a testing ground of strength and courage. Mainly, it strips away civilizing instincts, leaving both pursued and pursuer little better than animals. Wilde seems obsessed with man's choice to use violence as a sort of means of expression and the moral consequences of this choice, and the opening narration almost summarises the film's themes : “And man, lacking the will to understand other men, became like the beasts, and their way of life was his.” Its emphasis on this almost dialogue-free, zen-like approach to action as a subject in and of itself has been somewhat influential - Mel Gibson's Apocalypto is virtually a remake, transplanted to Central America, and the Coen Brothers (who remade the film on Super-8 as teens) were presumably influenced by it in their approach to the aborted To the White Sea (there are even similarities with the chase segments of No Country for Old Men.

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