The Naked Prey

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If there’s an award for services to middle-aged buffness in a 1960s mainstream movie, The Naked Prey would probably win it for Cornel Wilde, the other strong contender being Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer.

Wilde got there first, in 1965, three years before Lancaster stripped down to his swimming trunks to swim home through a series of suburban swimming pools.

Wilde’s existential crisis is more physical. He plays a guy billed only as “Man”, the organiser of a big-game-shooting safari in colonial Africa whose boorish client – a blowhard boasting of wanting to go into slavery once he’s exhausted ivory – insults a tribe whose territory the hunters have strayed upon. The tribe, peacable smiling chaps until roused, then take terrible vengeance on Man, 2nd Man (as the client is credited), their porters and fellow hunters.

Death is visited on Man’s hunting party in a variety of novel ways – one unfortunate is encased in clay and then baked over an open fire. Wilde, who also directs, dwells on the gruesomeness. It’s clearly great sport for the tribe, much as the white guys have been having great sport felling elephants, also shown as a grim affair.

With Cornel Wilde’s Man they come up with a different way of having their fun. He’s stripped naked and then given a head start before they set off after him, in hot pursuit with whoops and spears.

And that’s the rest of the film – the hunters giving chase and the hunted using wit and savvy to stay out of their clutches. Burt Lancaster had it comparatively easy.

Is this where Mel Gibson got the idea for Apocalypto from? Both are almost wordless chase movies focusing on a single person. The comparison can be pushed a bit further. Wilde, like Gibson, was also a maverick – a comfortable-enough actor who could have carried on playing swashbuckling pirates in movies of diminishing box office who instead branched out, forming his own production company and making films of some distinction.

The Africans give chase
The Africans give chase

Like this. As well as the star and director, he’s also the producer and sets the tone for the whole thing, which takes, for films of this period, the road far less travelled. Wilde shoots out in the open – no studio stuff at all – and there are documentary levels of wildlife footage (including some stuff, particularly the elephants being butchered, that would probably come with trigger warnings today).

The Africans are also accorded much more respect than was common at the time. They are not a faceless angry black mob but individuals. Sure, the deaths the tribesmen visit upon their foes are gruesome, but it’s made abundantly clear that the tribe was peaceable enough until insulted, civilised even. What’s more the actors all get respectfully name-checked in the closing credits. Ken Gampu, as the warrior leader stands out as a man who is equanimity itself… until crossed.

The respect extends to the soundtrack, which consists entirely of African instruments – drumming mostly – and chanting. They chant “shabutie” at one point, Google tells us (I must have missed that bit). It translates as “naked prey”

Is Man – Cornel Wilde – actually naked though, film fans? No, he’s wearing flesh coloured pants to protect his modesty, until he can borrow a loin cloth from a tribesman he spears to death. And that’s what the well dressed quarry wears for the rest of the film.

It’s all a mad fantasy, of course, the white guy in his mid 50s somehow outrunning fit young men who do this sort of thing for a living, evading marauding animals, snakes, big cats and the like. The sun alone would finish him off in an afternoon. Man’s skin gets a little pink and nothing more.

But it is a glorious mad fantasy, shot in lush widescreen in bold rich cinematography by Harold Thomson. It’s a one-off and though the white man is triumphant there is a lesson here for colonisers about respecting the country you’re in, and a discussion of the nature of civilisation, both subsumed to the demands of an urgent, visceral adventure”.

Fun factoid. When the Coen brothers made their first film, in 1970, a black-and-white short shot on Super 8 called Zeimers in Zambezi, they modelled it on The Naked Prey, with their neighbour, Mark Zimering, as Zeimers and Ethan Coen as “Native with a Spear”.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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