The Naked Prey (1966)
In 1951 Hungarian-born Cornel Wilde became the second major Hollywood actor after Burt Lancaster to form his own production company. A travelled man, proficient in six languages, he considered the two-dimensional heroism of Hollywood an insult to audiences. Tiring of the studio system, Wilde wanted to make movies about characters with substance and stories that challenged, rather than preached, so he created Theodora Pictures.
The Naked Prey was originally conceived to tell the story of John Colter, a trapper with the 1809 Lewis and Clarke expedition who survived an altercation with Blackfoot Indians in Wyoming. When Wilde became aware of substantial co-production funds available in South Africa, he and screenwriters Clint Johnston and Don Peters reworked the “western” into an allegory set in the veldts of South African Zulu country. This was a controversial move that at first glance looked like shameless profiteering on the back of the apartheid system. However, the resulting film with its use of indigenous black actors and measured treatment of African culture is not your typical exploitation fodder.
Wilde plays a safari guide anticipating retirement after one last expedition. When his elephant-hunting client (Gert van den Bergh) refuses, despite his warnings, to comply with a Zulu warrior’s (Ken Gampu) demand for tribute, the expedition camp is promptly attacked. Due to the perceived “insult” the hunters are brutally slain. This leaves only the 54-year-old Wilde who is stripped naked and chased into the bush, where he must elude wild animals and his vengeful pursuers and attempt to return to “civilisation”. Because the Nguni dialect is not subtitled, we, like the hero, fail to understand all the considerations governing this “trial by ordeal”. Wilde’s is in mortal danger, but because he had argued in favour of paying tribute, the tribesmen afford him the honour of proving himself their equal as a warrior.
The Naked Prey is an important example of independent US film-making. It is too often ignored on several counts: its pulp-storyline, the matter of fact directorial style and its scarcity of dialogue. The stock footage of animal deaths and the bleak way it was marketed (see one of the original film posters below) also didn't win it many friends upon release. The post-modern sensibilities of many contemporary critics, has often led to wilful misinterpretation. This engrossing adventure is a serious statement about the nature of “civilisation” and a plea for racial understanding. But the prevailing political attitudes in 1966 (at least in the US) chose not to see this and simply took it to be an exploitation film.
Wilde’s directorship is sympathetic of the Zulu people and explores the nature of power and alpha male status. Yet the introduction of a female character, a young girl whose village is enslaved, counter balances the male-centric narrative. Although clumsily implemented, their ensuing friendship, despite a language barrier, is quite endearing. The spectacular South African vistas become an additional protagonist in the story that proves hostile to all parties. During the end credits Wilde’s character is identified simply as ‘The Man'; a clear metaphor reflecting man’s constant struggle with his environment and himself.
If you have an open mind and are not swayed by the propaganda that has dogged this film, you will find a rewarding and powerful piece of cinema. Films like this are not made any more, at least, not in Hollywood. You can see the clear influence this film had on Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 exploitation piece, Cannibal Holocaust. It is also worth considering what reception this film would have received, if it had stuck closer to the source story and had been a traditional western. The genre was at its height in the 1960s and attitudes towards the depiction of Native Americans in movies were changing.