There are numerous movies out there about individuals surviving against the incredible odds of nature’s horrors, and one that’s deserving of more love is Cornel Wilde‘s still-thrilling 1965 film The Naked Prey. Thankfully, the folks behind The Criterion Collection agree, and they’ve just released the film to Blu-ray with an HD restoration and a handful of extras.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for…
The Naked Prey (1965)
Commentator: Stephen Prince (film historian)
1. The film is mostly free of dialogue as evident in the realization that the dialogue continuity script was only nine pages long.
2. The film was shot in South Africa at the height of that nation’s apartheid and our own Civil Rights movement.
3. The paintings accompanying the opening credits were done by a local artist named Andrew Motjuoadi.
4. The “score” is an nontraditional one consisting of local music played by local musicians as well as compositions by Andrew Tracey.
5. Writers Clint Johnston and Don Peters were nominated for an Academy Award for their script, and they worked again with Wilde on his follow-up film Beach Red (1967).
6. This film along with Beach Red and No Blade of Grass (1970) form a loose trilogy “about survival in hostile and violent lands.”
7. The leader of the tribe that crosses paths with the white-led safari is played by Ken Gampu who became the first black South African film star. He went on to appear in movies like The Wild Geese (1978), Zulu Dawn (1979), and The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980).
8. The film features footage from real elephant hunts, but Wilde’s contempt for the “sport” is clear in his editing as one giant creature’s demise is zoomed in on and repeated with gunfire. “Wilde the filmmaker aimed not to harm any of the animals he encountered during production.”
9. Wilde uses the widescreen to great effect throughout and often avoids closeups during early dialogue in favor of a simple master, but he makes a stylized choice at 10:01 to offer extreme closeups of both his own character (credited only as “the man”) and Gampu’s. It starts with a dolly into Wilde’s ear and then a cut to Gampu’s nose “as if he sniffs the air, scenting whites.” The shots weren’t previously available via Cinemascope but became possible thanks to Panavision’s anamorphic advances.
10. The story is inspired by the true story of a man named John Colter who endured a long journey on foot while pursued by members of the Blackfeet tribe in the early 1800s.
11. The behaviors of the attacking tribesmen seem modeled on those of “Hollywood Indians” in American Westerns, but “Wilde’s ethnographic impulse in the movie, his interest in documenting the cultures, language, and music of the region, plays against these conventions.
12. A couple performers aside, the vast majority of the Africans are real locals who Wilde let improvise within the outlines of their assigned situations and scenes.
13. Gampu’s character intercedes on behalf of Wilde’s stating that unlike the others he acted with honor. Per the continuity script, the king then decrees that he looks like a lion “and therefore should die like a lion.”
14. Some commentators have declared the moment at 16:46 — tribesmen poke and prod Wilde’s chest and arms — as cannibals checking out their future feast, but Prince disagrees. Wilde has been given the honor of being declared a lion, so they’re more likely checking to see what kind of shape he’s in to gauge the effort of the coming hunt for him.
15. The overhead shot at 19:53 is a briefly poetic one as tree branches with red flowers between us and the carnage below symbolize the blood we’re not seeing.
16. One of the surprising and innovative things about the film is Wilde’s decision to give the emotional content to the warriors as opposed to the whites. The scene at 25:02 is one of many examples as one of the hunters stops to grieve his fallen friend instead of continuing the pursuit.
17. Prince acknowledges the story construct — ie screenwriters’ fantasy rather than truth — of sequences involving baroque torture methods, a hunter missing a spear throw, and another hunter collapsing from exerting himself with the run. That last one, though, has a basis in the Colter tale.
18. The footage of the fight between the cheetah and the baboon is a brief metaphorical look at the battle between the warriors and Wilde. He’s essentially the primate, and just as viewers seeing these two animals face off probably expect the big cat to make quick work of the baboon the warriors expect the same of their human prey.
19. The silhouette shot of the warriors at 36:49 shows them carrying a recently slain impala, but it’s actually a wooden cutout “because Wilde didn’t want to kill the animal.”
20. Prince credits Wilde’s childhood in which he began learning multiple languages as a big motivator for his decision as director to leave the tribesmen’s dialogue without subtitles.
21. Wilde originally trained as a fencer and was given a slot on the 1936 Olympic Fencing Team before withdrawing for undisclosed reasons. He instead provided fencing choreography in a handful of films before shifting slowly into acting.
22. Wilde’s efforts to avoid hurting animals went a step too far while filming a fight between a snake and a lizard. The former started gaining the upper hand so Wilde put a cloth sack over the snake and attempted to move the lizard away — but the little reptile bit down on his leg, refusing to release him, and had to be killed by crew members. Wilde had to return to London for medical care.
23. Prince recalls an interview Wilde gave which essentially sums up his central theme and cautionary parable behind the film. “Man must learn to understand his fellow man, no matter how different he is, or all men will live like animals in the jungle.”
24. The film was Wilde’s favorite of the ones he directed, and he even wrote a script for a sequel. “He was negotiating with Paramount to do it when he died in 1989, so it was never to be.”
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“Those are the first such arterial spurts in American cinema.”
“I think it’s probably a big mistake for this poor old guy trussed up as a bird to try to run.”
“This other victim is being slow-roasted over the fire and whenever I see this I think of my Boy Scout days.”
“Male nudity, then as well as now, is the great taboo in American cinema.”
“When the point of a story is a chase, you don’t have characters do things that stop the action.”
“Wilde doesn’t give us villains, and he doesn’t really give us a hero.”
“Now how does a small girl get a large white man out of a river?”
The Naked Prey remains one of the screen’s great tales of survival, and Criterion’s new Blu-ray is a must-own for fans. The HD restoration brings the director’s widescreen compositions to vibrant life, and Prince’s commentary offers a highly informative listen. He’s reading notes, meaning by its very nature it lacks the spontaneity and personality of most tracks, but it’s hard to argue with the detail he provides into the film’s production and Wilde’s life/career. As mentioned, the film is incredibly light on dialogue, so watching with the commentary doesn’t leave you missing character conversations. Of course, it still shouldn’t be your first viewing…
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.