Cast & Crew
Gert Van Den Bergh
In the 19th century, a white hunter is preparing to lead a safari into the South African jungle. Through the rudeness of the hunter's employer, the natives are stirred to anger and revenge, and as a result, he and his party are attacked and brutally tortured to death by the tribesmen. The hunter's punishment is to be stripped of his clothing, weapons, and food and set free. Given a headstart, he is to compete in "The Chance of the Lion," an ancient game of survival in which he will be hunted by tribe members who have killed 10 lions. He wards off starvation by eating raw plants and snakes and stealing food; cornered, he uses his cunning to escape; when trapped, he saves his life by killing his foe. After days of fighting both the jungle and his pursuers, the man reaches sight of a mission fort. Although he is almost caught, his luck and courage carry him through, and he crawls to safety. As he does so, he looks back and sees the chief tribesman award him with a salute of respect.
Gert Van Den Bergh
Andrew T. Motjuoadi
Donald A. Peters
The Principal Warriors
H. A. R. Thomson
Dawie Van Heerden
Corrie Van Wyk
Best Writing, Screenplay
The Naked Prey
Bearing similarities to the 1932 film version of Richard Edward Connell's short story, The Most Dangerous Game, a movie that had a profound effect on Wilde as a young boy, The Naked Prey follows a safari guide (Wilde) as he leads his party through the South African jungle. When the arrogant ivory hunter (Gert Van den Bergh), who is financing the safari, refuses to pay homage to a group of tribesmen for entering their territory, there is bloody retribution. Only the safari guide is allowed to live...if he can outrun a group of armed warriors in pursuit. He is given a brief head start and then the chase begins, one which will test his strength, endurance and cunning repeatedly as he attempts to reach safety.
Cornel Wilde began the project in earnest after reading a story taken from a radio play that was, in turn, an adaptation of "John Colter's Escape," a 1913 record of a fur trapper's escape from Blackfoot Indians in Wyoming. According to Wilde, "I bought it, changed the site to Africa and read Stanley's diary and some material by Livingstone. The main idea was using man as a beast and hunting him." It was Wilde's intention to make The Naked Prey a movie that told its story through visual terms and little dialogue, a fact that is borne out by the dialogue continuity script which was only nine pages long.
According to an interview with Gordon Cow for Films and Filming there were also other reasons why he wanted to make the movie: "This reliance upon the visuals attracted me, of course. That and the fact that it had a realistic quality, and that I could find a theme in it to work toward all the time. The action was inherent, but so was what it had to say: that man must learn to understand his fellow man, no matter how different he is, or all men will live like the animals in the jungle. If you apply the yardstick of asking yourself continually whether what you are doing is proving a thesis, then you remove all extraneous things. The Naked Prey was essentially a motion picture, instead of a transplanted play. Not that I think dialogue films are not true motion pictures. They certainly can be, because even in a room you can do wonderful things with a camera. But the constant movement in The Naked Prey really appealed to me, and the challenge of keeping it different all the time, so that each section of the chase had a different kind of excitement in it."
In the winter of 1964-65, Wilde, his wife, actress Jean Wallace, and co-producer Sven Persson traveled to Northern Transvaal to begin filming The Naked Prey with location shooting in the Kruger National Park, Botswana, Mozambique and Rhodesia. Almost immediately the cast and crew were made aware of the dangers of making a movie in the wilds. The unit manager was bitten by a cobra on the second day of production and even Wilde himself had two close calls. One when a bull elephant tried to attack his land rover and another when he was injured by an iguana during the lizard-python fight sequence. When it became obvious the iguana was starting to kill the snake, Wilde stepped in to rescue the python and the agitated iguana chomped down on the director's shin instead, refusing to let go until it was killed. Wilde was then flown back to London for medical treatment where he received tetanus shots and plastic surgery on his mutilated skin. "I'm probably the only actor in town who has had a shin lift," he joked from his hospital bed.
Back on location for The Naked Prey, Wilde made such a favorable impression on a local tribal chieftain that he was offered a fifteen-year-old girl as a wife. "But I have a wife," Cornel protested. "I have a wife; she's here with me." The chieftain had a hard time believing Wilde could be happy with one wife since it was common in his tribe to have six but the situation was resolved amicably.
Overall, the African filming had been a huge success although Wilde became ill from sheer exhaustion at one point and lost a good deal of weight. When you see him on the screen, however, it's hard to believe that you are looking at a man who was fifty-four at the time of filming. His chiseled body and physical grace (acquired from many years as a fencing champion) look like that of a much younger man.
The most important aspect of Wilde's location filming, however, was the fact that he was allowed to make a film using black actors (many of the tribesmen were non-professionals) and local residents at a time when South Africa was under apartheid, a system of legalized segregation enforced by government officials whose ancestors were Dutch and British colonialists. The Naked Prey marked the second film appearance of Ken Gampu (in the role of the head warrior) who is considered the first Black African film star. But even though he was allowed to appear on screen with white actors at the time, Gampu was not allowed to share quarters or socialize with his white co-stars and slept in a car at night during the filming of The Naked Prey.
From a historical and cultural perspective, Wilde's film is particularly fascinating now when you consider it was made while the Black power movement in America was on the rise and South Africa's apartheid government was firmly entrenched (it would be dismantled in 1994 through elections). Despite the fact that Wilde is the title character of the film, he devotes equal screen time to humanizing and developing his pursuers who are given moments of emotional expression that the safari guide rarely displays. The film's one brief interlude of compassion occurs when the hunted guide is rescued from drowning by a young African girl who befriends him for a brief time. And the only aspect of The Naked Prey which strains credibility to some degree is the fact that an outsider, regardless of his physical prowess, would be more likely to survive and outwit the pursuing tribesmen who are experts on their own terrain and survivalists of the first order.
The Naked Prey had its world premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival on June 3, 1965 and garnered glowing reviews from most film critics during its theatrical release in the U.S. Time magazine noted that the film "gathers fierce momentum as a classic, single-minded epic of survival with no time out for fainthearted blondes or false heroics." Variety stated the "Film is an artistic achievement of which producer-director-star Cornel Wilde and associates can be justifiably proud..." Judith Crist of the "NBC Today Show" said, "The Naked Prey is one of the most exciting chase movies to come our way." The only dissenter appeared to be The New York Times reviewer who called it "a poor and tasteless motion-picture entertainment," adding, "It is disgusting stuff and the wise viewer will get out of the theatre even before the chase has began."
It is true that the scenes of violence in The Naked Prey, particularly the deaths of Wilde's safari companions, are extremely gruesome and intense for 1966 but, in the context of the story, it seems necessary and is still potent today. Although the movie certainly warranted more recognition than it received when first released, it did garner an Oscar® nomination for Best Story and Screenplay, Written Directly for the Screen. It should have also received nominations for H.A.R. Thomson's stunning color cinematography and the authentic African music score, composed of tribal songs captured in the field by Wilde, and studio recordings with African musicians (These recordings have since been preserved by the Smithsonian).
Some final bits of trivia:
- Some film scholars consider The Naked Prey the first in an unofficial trilogy of films by Wilde about survival in a hostile universe; the other two are Beach Red (1967), a World War II drama, and No Blade of Grass (1970), a futuristic end-of-the-world thriller.
- Wilde considered The Naked Prey his favorite movie and was planning a sequel to it when he died in 1989.
- Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (2006) is considered by some to be an informal remake of Wilde's film. - The opening credit sequence of The Naked Prey features paintings created by South African artist Andrew T. Motjuoadi.
- The 1970 black comedy Where's Poppa? contains an in-joke about Wilde's film when George Segal is chased through Central Park at night by a black gang that references this movie.
Producer: Sven Persson, Cornel Wilde
Director: Cornel Wilde
Screenplay: Clint Johnston, Don Peters
Cinematography: H.A.R. Thomson
Film Editing: Roger Cherrill
Cast: The Man (Cornel Wilde), Gert Van den Bergh (Man #2), Ken Gampu (Leader of the warriors), Patrick Mynhardt (Safari overseer), Bella Randles (Little girl), Morrison Gampu (Tribe leader).
by Jeff Stafford
The Swashbucklers by James Robert Parish
The Criterion Collection DVD booklet for The Naked Prey with commentary by Stephen Prince
The Naked Prey
The Naked Prey - Cornel Wilde is THE NAKED PREY - 1966 Survivalist Adventure on DVD!
Thanks to its licensing relationship with Paramount, Criterion offers this unique adventure in a stunning widescreen presentation. It's been on the short list of desired DVDs for quite a while.
Synopsis: The leader of a safari offends a native tribe, which retaliates with a bloody attack. Two of the white men in charge are subjected to horrible deaths. The last, the safari guide (Cornel Wilde) is given a lion's chance to survive. Stripped naked and given a short head start, he's pursued by the tribe's leading warriors through the rough African countryside. The guide overpowers several of the warriors and by setting a brush fire manages to keep ahead of their spears and arrows. Some of the tribesmen would rather quit but their leader (Ken Gampu) forces the party to press on.
Cornel Wilde had success in smaller producing and directing ventures (such as 1955's minimalist noir, The Big Combo) but hit his stride with three key pictures about savagery and survival. His war movie Beach Red was a big success but a much cruder effort. The post-apocalyptic ecological science fiction saga No Blade of Grass set a new standard for grim cynicism but suffers from a hysterical tone and exploitative excess. Wilde's best picture by far, The Naked Prey stands out as a model of inspired filmmaking.
Cy Endfield's 1965 Zulu filled screens with hordes of authentic Africans in a respectful replay of the Zulu Wars. The Naked Prey goes a significant step further by humanizing the native tribesmen. As Stephen Prince points out in his insightful commentary, we learn much more about the pursuing Africans than we do Wilde's lone white 'prey'. The Africans show pride, shame and anger, a full range of human anxieties. Every kid remembers the distraught reaction of the warrior who comes across a fallen comrade: the man collapses in the dirt and hugs the body with a wail of sorrow. We want Wilde's white man to escape, but we also understand and respect his pursuers.
Wilde's message is that we are all savages, and that the horrors inflicted on the captured safari are only a reaction to an equally barbaric outside world of slavers, poachers and colonials. Muslim slavers seize an entire black village. The white hunters consider the natives as just more wildlife for exploitation, something to be brushed aside while massacring elephants for ivory. When the safari's arrogant leader offends a native party, the Africans reciprocate with slaughter and torture on a fearful scale. The whites are dragged back to the native camp and made the centerpiece of a killing circus. The savage natives force one man to face a deadly cobra and, in one of the most nightmarish scenes ever, bake another alive. After this, New Yorker cartoons showing missionaries being boiled in pots no longer seem as funny.
As it was made in South Africa The Naked Prey is often cited as a political statement against Apartheid (cite Prince, once again). At first the African natives align with our cultural image of heathens who enjoy killing and evil, but we soon realize that they are simply defending their land and way of life. Ken Gampu's sub-chief is a noble warrior. He respects his prey enough to grant him a fighting chance, unaware that the safari guide has the potential to out-run and outfox his pursuers.
Wilde's blood-soaked direction pits the naked runner against the cruel landscape, where every living thing must fight for survival. Crisply edited montages catalog the variety of spiny plants and cactus waiting to tear his exposed skin. Stealing the garb and weapons of one of his pursuers, the guide fells a small eland, only to have a lion steal the carcass. Finding sources of protein is as important as running and fighting; the guide tries several inedible plants before eating a gross-looking but apparently tasty snail. Inspired by the authentic setting, Wilde tells his story with a maximum of narrative clarity. Over 50 but in remarkable physical condition, Wilde does his own stunts and acts with admirable understatement. The champion fencer began in show business choreographing swordfights for the theater. He stages his action scenes in convincing master shots. The fights are short, brutal and bloody.
The Naked Prey was an international hit. With so little dialogue, language was no barrier. The primitive setting (and racial bias of the censors?) permitted native nudity and a higher level of gore than was the norm for 1966. Wilde's everyman hero enjoys a final moment of comradeship with his black enemy, which may indicate optimism for racial understanding in South Africa. But the director's opinion on African politics can best be seen in the safari guide's farewell to the little African girl he has befriended. Rather than continue with the guide, the girl chooses to go back and see if others of her tribe have survived. The girl's future in her homeland lies on a different path than the white man's, and she's perfectly capable of finding her own way.
Criterion's disc of The Naked Prey gives us a beautiful enhanced transfer of this great picture in its full Panavision aspect ratio. The colors are excellent and the film's hearty African music soundtrack comes across beautifully. The film's realism is heightened by excellent authentic presences and background noises, something unexpected in a 1960s film. The illusion of being deep in the wild breaks only once, when we can plainly see a white truck moving from left to right behind Cornel Wilde in the background of a medium shot. As the director acts in most every scene, he can't be behind the camera at the same time!
Stephen Prince's informative commentary is highly recommended. We learn that The Naked Prey began as a story about a true 'run of the arrow' escape from Blackfoot Indians in the Nebraska territory by John Coulter, a former member of the Lewis & Clark expedition. South African production incentives enticed Wilde to shift his theme to a brand new setting. Prince examines Wilde's other films and also discusses the great African actor Ken Gampu, who began as a schoolteacher. Prince lists The Most Dangerous Game as an obvious progenitor of Prey and reminds us that last year's Apocalypto is really an informal remake.
In addition to a lengthy, over-explicit trailer, the extras include a short reading by Paul Giamatti of a 1913 account of John Coulter's escape, and an audio & text appreciation of the film's unusual musical score. The insert booklet contains an essay by Michael Atkinson and a 1970 interview with Cornel Wilde.
For more information about The Naked Prey, visit The Criterion Collection. To order The Naked Prey, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
The Naked Prey - Cornel Wilde is THE NAKED PREY - 1966 Survivalist Adventure on DVD!
Cornel Wilde was ill through much of the filming but continued, noting that it seemed to add to his performance.
The script was originally a true historical incident about a trapper named John Colter being pursued by Blackfoot Indians in Wyoming, but lower shooting costs, tax breaks and material and logistical assistance offered by South Africa convinced Cornel Wilde and the other producers to shoot the film there.
Filmed in the Transvaal, including the Kruger National Park; Botswana; Mozambique; and Rhodesia. The film acknowledges the cooperation of the country of South Africa and the Trustees of the National Parks Board of South Africa.
Released in United States 1966
Released in United States March 1979
Released in United States 1966
Released in United States March 1979 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The 50-Hour Mighty MovieMarathon: Mystery and Suspense) March 14-30, 1979.)