DVD of the Week: The Naked Prey (1966)

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.

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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.

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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.

13 thoughts on “DVD of the Week: The Naked Prey (1966)

  1. Vanwall says:

    An amazing film – the very first one I ever videotaped. It’s actually pretty ambivalent towards the race of man in general, and has some touching moments as well as suspense – the hunt among the big succulent trees was beautifully choreographed – but it was sort of life-affirming in the end, surprisingly. I always had a bit of bother in the back of my head as to where it was filmed due to the South Africa problems back then, but it gave a chance for some wonderful African actors, especially Ken Gampu, the lead hunter – he was awesome. (He later shows up in “The Gods Must be Crazy”!) By the end of the film, you feel exhausted, too, a nice bit of empathetic scripting. The close ups you show are all thru the film, adding to the panic in the background. I believe the word ‘visceral’ could never be better used in a one-word descriptive review. Wilde’s “Beach Red” is another minor masterpiece, as well.

  2. cinebeats says:

    “Visceral” would be the perfect one-word review for The Naked Prey! I love the way the film approaches what the NY Times critic Dave Kehr perfectly calls “Darwinian fury” and I tried to capture that above in my screen shots. Gampu is terrific in this as well. Seeing the film in widescreen made me fall in love with it all over again. It’s easily one of the best American films of the sixties and I can’t recommend the new Criterion DVD enough.

  3. Kevin says:

    Great movie! I love the cutaways to life in the wild, it gives a great sense of the environment the movie takes place in and Cornel Wilde was 54?! Geez, most people don’t look that good at 24. Kudos to Wilde.

    I’d love to see both Beach Red and No Blade of Grass, as Wilde seemed to be quite ambitious a filmmaker with a desire to explore serious themes which is more than you can say about a lot of other actors-turned-directors (or just plain directors either, sadly).

  4. Jonathan Lapper says:

    I’ve haven’t seen this in years and never saw it properly to begin with. I’ve only ever seen it on tv, pan and scan but I can still remember years ago in my long lost teens watching it (probably on TBS) and being captivated throughout. Now that it’s on DVD I can’t wait to see it for the “first” time all over again, the way it was meant to be seen.

  5. Keith says:

    I saw this years ago on some cable tv station I think. I don’t remember as much about it as I would like to. Your blog definitely has me inspired to want to see it again.

  6. cinebeats says:

    Kevin – A lot of the wildlife footage Wilde shot is really stunning. I was also impressed to discover that he took great care not to harm any of the animals, reptiles or insects he encountered and shot.

    As Vanwall mentioned above, Beach Red is terrific as well and I highly recommend it. I’ve never seen Wilde’s science fiction film No Blade of Grass, but I’m really curious about it. Now that The Naked Prey is available on DVD and so is Beach Red, there’s a good chance that No Blade of Grass might get released as well.

    Jonathan – I had only seen a pan and scan version of the film on TV myself. The Criterion disc is a real revelation! The movie looks absolutely incredible. I think you’ll enjoy seeing it again and I can’t recommend Prince’s DVD commentary enough.

    Keith – I’m glad I inspired you to watch it again. The new widescreen print Criterion restored is really worth a look. It’s an amazing film.

  7. Vanwall says:

    As for “No Blade of Grass”, it was an early non-atomic environmental dystopia novel, not the greatest, and Wilde’s film version is very preachy and weirdly cut, but it has some key biker scenes which must’ve influenced the “Mad Max” films, along with their hell-spawned imitations. It isn’t a great film, or maybe even good, but it is grimly riveting, and was the only one of its kind for a while. Believe it or not, I had a flashback to this film while watching of all things “Ice Pirates”, (!!!) the loopy Star Wars meets Road Warrior spoof – there’s a cominallity where even the most honest man is evil in a land where it’s the now the norm and you’re trying to find the last of a life-sustaining essential.

  8. cinebeats says:

    Thanks for the info about No Blade of Grass. It seems like you’re not the only person who didn’t care for the film much since a quick look at IMDb.com brought up lots of unflattering reviews, but I’d love to see it for myself.

    I’m impressed with Cornel Wilde’s obvious interest in social causes or issues he obviously cared about a lot since they seemed to pop up in his films.

    Does anyone happen to know if Wilde’s biography was ever published? I’ve read that he was in the process of editing it when he died, which makes me assume he completed it, but I can’t seem to find any information about it online. I’d love to read it if it’s available.

  9. Vanwall says:

    Kimberly – I guess I came across as a little harsh about “No Blade of Grass” without meaning to; by all means see it, as it’s an interesting experiment in editing, if a little disconcerting, and it has that distinctive British Sci-fi feel, like the Quatermass series, or “X The Unknown”, with a little more blood to it.

    I was and always will be a big SF fan, and had a real wish for another “2001”, but I went to see it anyway, knowing the novel hadn’t impressed me despite some good reviews, and it wasn’t up to level of the novel, much less better SF that was out there. It’s hard to compress good speculative fiction into a coupla hours viewing, so I didn’t expect much, but it did have some little set-pieces that had a nice feel. I won’t give away any spoilers, but there are some obvious hooks that were word of mouth selling points for teenage boys.

    Wilde had enthusiasm, that’s for sure, so if some his conviction transferred onto the screen as tedious expounding, then they should remember the book had its share of that, too – lots more of it. I seem to remember all of his directing efforts had a certain amount claret spilled, so that was a hook too. He didn’t direct many films, but all are watchable – the first film that I remembered him in was an obscure racing movie I saw on TV, (I’m also a hard-core gear-head) and didn’t even realize he’d directed it until some years later. Even that was a good afternoon’s escape.

  10. cinebeats says:

    Vanwall – it has that distinctive British Sci-fi feel, like the Quatermass series, or “X The Unknown”, with a little more blood to it.

    Now you’ve managed to make me want to see it more! I love British sci-fi + more blood is usually a selling point with me.

    Jeremy – I hope you’ll like it once you get to see it. It’s not the kind of film that will probably appeal to the typical Criterion audience (whatever that might be), but I’m so happy they released it.

  11. Phil says:

    Cornel Wilde was slated to go to the Olympics as a fencer but opted to go Hollywood instead. if you ever see him fence, you can see he’s head and shoulders better than anyone else. I always like his acting and this was his best movie.

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