Beefcake actor Cornel Wilde started directing in 1955, but really hit his stride in the mid sixties with ‘The Naked Prey’, a film which made an indelible impression on me when I first saw it at the age of six or seven.
Based on a true story but relocated from the American West to Africa, ‘The Naked Prey’ is a really brutal film, both in terms of violence and impact on the viewer – it takes the dramatic narrative and strips it to its barest elements – hardly any dialogue, no non-diegetic music, just pure, taut action – it’s an unforgettable experience.
|Safaris from Hell|
|The punishment for rudeness in this part of the world|
Wilde’s unnamed character is a professional guide to a group of arrogant European elephant hunters. When they encounter a group of natives, he advises his boss of the correct etiquette and the potential danger of not following it. This advice is ignored, and the natives are offended. Shortly afterwards, the hunting party are captured by the natives and frogmarched back to a village where they are humiliated and killed one by one in the most awful circumstances imaginable. The more respected Wilde is left until last, stripped and sent out into the bush with nothing but a short head start. He is to be used as ‘target practice’ for the young warriors of the village, the human prey in a chase to the death.
|He's lapping this up|
Wilde always had a fascination with nature, and his best films (this, psychedelic war film ‘Beach Red’, post apocalyptic drama 'No Blade of Grass’) feature cut in footage of animals killing each other as a contrast to the drama unfolding before us – to remind us that life and death is not just measured in human terms - there are also scenes of animals (including elephants) being killed by humans that are simply unpalatable by today's standards. The pursuing warriors are not just stereotypical savages either, they are three dimensional people too, with thoughts and feelings and strong emotions that bind them together in the hunt. Wilde’s odyssey through the bush is filmed in stark documentary style – his triumphs (finding water, food, companionship) are shown as flatly as his terrors (the constant threat of death, the exhaustion, the murders he commits to survive), and the film is a hugely tense and emotionally draining affair.
|Yet another tense moment|
As a child, I was absolutely appalled (and fascinated) by the horror of the film – so much so that, after watching this and seeing ‘Zulu’ in the same year, I wrote at school (rather shamefully, but perhaps understandably given my age) that the thing I was most scared of in the world was Africans with spears. Nowadays, of course, I’d probably be taken into care, but, back then, a blind eye was turned, probably because in rural Essex in the nineteen seventies, everyone else was scared of them too.