In this age of movies that are overstuffed, overproduced, and overlong, it’s refreshing to see a film like The Naked Prey – simple to the point of minimalism, yet remarkably effective.
It’s sometime in the 19th century and in an unnamed African country, a guide (director and star Cornel Wilde) is leading a safari on an ivory hunt. During the trek, the safari party meets up with a group of local tribesmen. When one of the hunters disregards the guide’s advice and insults the tribesmen, the tribe later attacks the safari, killing many of the members and taking the others prisoner.
Most of the captured safari party is subjected to fates of varying cruelty – these scenes aren’t gory by today’s standards but the unpleasantness and humiliation for the sufferers will have most viewers wincing. However, the tribe respects the guide because he knows the language and customs, so they give him a more merciful, honorable fate. He’s stripped of all clothes and weapons, given a head start, and then will be hunted down by the tribe.
But the guide proves himself to be fit and savvy, with plenty of ingenuity. What was supposed to be a quick killing becomes a long chase as the guide tries to make it back to his settlement, and the tribesmen try to hunt him down.
That’s the entire plot of The Naked Prey – for much of its running time it’s one man on the run from a group of others, with both hunter and hunted using their skills and brains, and both running afoul of the brutal heat, attacks from snakes and other animals, elusive food (the guide has to eat a raw snake to survive), and attacks by slave traders. There are long stretches with no dialogue, and we never learn which country the story is set in, the guide’s name (he’s listed as “man” in the credits) or anyone else’s name for that matter. But the beauty of the story and Wilde’s direction is that we don’t need any of these things to enjoy the movie. The clever (though short – 9 pages!) screenplay deftly sketches in the relevant details. We learn early on that this is the last safari the guide will work on, and after this he’s retiring to his farm. His contempt for the boorish hunters he works for is clear, and the contempt becomes disgust when the hunters needlessly slaughter elephants and invite the guide to join them in the slave trading business. Credit goes to all the actors, most of whom were amateurs, but especially to Ken Gampu as the lead hunter of the tribesmen. Gampu takes what could have been a stereotypical “evil savage” role and makes it clear that the hunters’ insult of him is a deeply humiliating moment, and that he respects the guide not just for his knowledge of local language and custom but for his survival skills as well. Wilde turns in a very good performance as well. In his fifties when the movie was made, he has a better physique than many men half his age and makes it plausible that he could survive in such harsh conditions. Yet Wilde’s character never sacrifices his humanity to survive, taking time during his escape to help a young child orphaned by slave raiders’ attack on a village.
Wilde’s direction is clever, making good use of what looks like documentary footage (note to the squeamish: those are real elephants being killed in the hunt scene). His best moments are when he juxtaposes images of harsh landscapes and thorny bushes with the physically vulnerable characters. At times the comparison of the human struggle with nature’s struggles becomes a bit heavy-handed, but overall the directorial touches work better than any amount of exposition ever could.
Criterion has put together a marvelous release with a gorgeous widescreen transfer of the film. The best extra is an insightful commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince, which is particularly enlightening in pointing out how the film both uses and subverts the clichés of colonial and Western films. Other extras include a trailer, and an account by a North American trapper whose escape from a Native American tribe was the inspiration for The Naked Prey (the account is read by Paul Giamatti).
If you want an old-fashioned but intelligent adventure story, do yourself a favor and watch The Naked Prey.