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Ten Word or Less Review: Great, unheralded African adventure from the mid 60’s.

Stories revolving around hunting humans became cinematic territory early into the invention of sound films.  1932’s “The Most Dangerous Game” was the first film to delve into one man’s blood lust to search for and then kill the other.  The genre continues to this day with grizzly affairs like Mel Gibson’s blood soaked Mayan epic “Apocalypto.”  Existing somewhere between the two in both age and style is the accomplished 1966 effort “The Naked Prey” by actor/director Cornel Wilde.

Wilde stars as a 19th century hunting guide in Africa whose employer foolishly disregards his warnings about giving proper tribute to the natives while crossing their terrain.  Upon this sign of disrespect, the entire hunting party is attacked and massacred by savage African natives.  Wilde’s nameless man is stripped naked and sent running into the African wild to fend for his life as his spear wielding captors plan to make quick work of him for sport.  Little do they count on his advanced survival skills and before they know it, a member of hunters has been killed by his hand as he tries to make his way out of hostile territory.  “The Naked Prey” is by turns a first rate survivalist tale, a study of the relationship between predator and prey, as well as a fascinating look at an individual thrown into the type of everyday kill or be killed existence which people have largely forgotten.

Wilde intersperses the movie with documentary styled footage of one creature making meal of another.  The crux of Wilde’s interludes is there to remind us that being part of nature is to face the daily possibility that you will be food for something else.  His is not a romantic presentation of the predator/prey relationship.  The contemporary nature documentary that most people experience has often leant a strong and misguided dose of tragedy into the animal kingdom.  In short, nature documentaries turn what is no ore than lunch for a creature into Shakespearean tragedy.  A film like “The Naked Prey” reminds us of what nonsense such sentiment can seem like.  Wilde’s nameless prey scours the land for something, anything, to survive on while not being made into another critters dinner.  It’s a keen example about how quickly a person’s higher forms of civility can be amputated and rendered useless.

Wilde’s prowess as a director overall is unknown to me, he directed just 8 films in 20 years, but here he serves as a great builder of suspense.  He keeps his story in check and on the rails, careful not to let things get convoluted or out of hand.  The initial presentation of a fearsome, blood thirsty tribe of savage Africans may put some on edge.  One fears that we’re on the cusp of a lurid, white man nightmare where higher society is put on the run by backwards beast of black skin.  Wilde starts here but makes the wise decision to gradually flesh out the pursuers.  Instead of making the tribesmen mindless fodder, they develop into a group of characters, albeit minor ones.  While Wilde’s nameless man stays pretty much the same through out the story, his hunters are the ones who undergo changes and failures.  They mourn their fallen comrades, they turn on each other as they consistently fail to catch their prey, their leader turns their game into a ruthless quest as their numbers dwindle.  Wilde himself is mostly responsible for pulling off a physically convincing portrait of a man who could manage to survive in the African wild for days on end by wits and luck.  Most impressive of all is that Wilde does all this with almost with no understandable or subtitled dialogue.

Fans of gritty, survivalist cinema will be hooked into “The Naked Prey” pretty easily.  It’s a respectable feat and an interesting angle on an old subject.  It’s also another great example of a largely forgotten movie being brought back to the surface thanks to the folks at Criterion.

Closely Related To It: The Most Dangerous Game, Hard Target, Apocalypto, Zulu, Southern Comfort

Distant Relations: Predator, Cast Away

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