This week I’m kick-starting my 2008 DVD Picks of the Week with one of my longtime favorites, Cornel Wilde’s brilliantly executed and often neglected masterpiece, The Naked Prey (1966), which was released on DVD by Criterion this week. Coincidently, back in July of 2007 the inquisitive Dennis Cozzalio asked his blog readers the following question:
What movie, either currently available on DVD or not, has never received the splashy collector’s edition treatment you think it deserves? What would such an edition include?
My head swam when I was considering my response because frankly there are hundreds of films that are not available on DVD that I would love to see get released as “splashy collector’s editions.” Of late I’ve often wondered why some of the most important American films from the ’60s and ’70s featuring poignant social commentary or anti-war sentiments aren’t available on DVD so in my response to Dennis I mentioned that I’d love to see splashy collector editions of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1971) and Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey (1966) among other films. At the time that I mentioned The Naked Prey I had no idea that Criterion was planning on releasing the film on DVD so you can imagine how surprised and happy I was when I discovered that Criterion would be releasing it many months later. The Naked Prey wasn’t exactly given a “splashy collector’s treatment” by Criterion, but considering that this is the first time this magnificent movie has been made available on DVD, I couldn’t be much happier with the results.
The Criterion disc includes a beautifully restored digital widescreen transfer of the film, audio commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince, the original soundtrack cues created by director Cornel Wilde and ethnomusicologist Andrew Tracey, along with a written statement about the score by Tracey, the original theatrical trailer for the film and a written record of the events of 1913 involving a trapper’s flight from Blackfoot Indians—which was the inspiration for The Naked Prey—read by actor Paul Giamatti, plus a booklet featuring a new essay by film critic Michael Atkinson and a 1970 interview with Wilde that I wish had been captured on film.
While watching The Naked Prey again I was truly stunned by the incredible look of this classic film, which is made all the more evident thanks to the fine restoration work done by Criterion. Cornel Wilde was a popular and handsome Hollywood star who appeared in some great historical dramas, crime pictures and adventure films during the ’40s and ’50s, but he only started directing his own movies later in life. It’s a shame that he didn’t spend more time behind the camera because Wilde clearly shows he’s got some impressive directing abilities in The Naked Prey.
The film tells the rather simplistic tale of a group of white hunters in colonial Africa led by Cornel Wilde. When one of the men offends a tribesman they encounter, the hunters are all attacked, captured and killed, except for Wilde. Since Wilde is the only man in his hunting group who showed the natives any respect, they offer him a running start before they begin to hunt him like an animal. Thankfully luck is on his side and he manages to survive much longer than anyone expects. The Naked Prey features very little dialogue and no subtitles, even though various native dialects are heard throughout the film. Instead, Wilde uses the natural jungle sounds and the film’s effective score to tell his memorable tale.
Some potential viewers will probably assume that The Naked Prey is a typical adventure film set in Africa where the good and wise white hunters must fight off the primitive jungle savages, but frankly nothing could be further from the truth. The film does use typical conventions found in countless adventure films made before the sixties, but Wilde injects his movie with insightful social commentary about racism and oppression in South Africa, where the film takes place. Using fantastic footage he shot of the natural wildlife, Wilde was also able to smartly examine complex ideas about man’s primitive animal instincts and basic survival urges that could all be considered rather timely topics in 1966 as well as today.
The film is also just plain entertaining and stunning to look at. The African countryside and its people had rarely appeared more beautiful in a Hollywood film before. Wilde shoots their actions and rituals with an artists’ eye and the audience is asked to sympathize with the land and the human beings that populate it instead of merely fearing them. The film might appear slightly outdated now, but its final humanist message of understanding and unity is as pertinent as ever and when viewed in context of the time that it was made, The Naked Prey is truly a remarkable achievement.
Cornel Wilde was 54 years old when he directed and starred in The Naked Prey, but the actor has rarely looked better. He performs all his own stunts in the film and it’s obvious that he took good care of himself. His performance in the movie is very understated and purely physical, but that’s what makes it so impressive. With very little dialogue and character background, Wilde was able to infuse his role with a lot of life.
The Naked Prey is Cornel Wilde’s most well-known directorial effort and it was a worldwide success on its initial release. In recent years the film has often been overlooked or forgotten, but I’m glad that Criterion has finally made the movie available on DVD so more people can discover it. I’ve watched it twice in the last couple of days and I really enjoyed the in-depth audio commentary provided by Stephen Prince. Prince clearly has a lot of love for the film and he offers listeners plenty of information about the production that was new to me. The Naked Prey DVD retails for $39.95 and it’s currently available at Amazon for $29.99. You should also be able to find the film for rent online at Netflix and Greencine.