Golden Age Hollywood actor Cornel Wilde stars in, directs, and produces this violent tale of survival.
Cornel Wilde is a colonialist running for his life in 1965’s The Naked Prey, a film he also produced and directed.
The more one knows about the life and career of Wilde, the more unique, and therefore special, The Naked Prey becomes. Unshackled from the burden of its own true-life backstory, it is, by today’s standards, just another go-go-go action-every-few-minutes/dialogue lite spectacle, albeit an older 'n’ earlier entry of the sort. The hunter becomes the hunted, and all that. But there are indeed deeper layers of appreciation and observation available at the heart of this straight-ahead survival tale.
Wilde’s trifecta of screen credits is quite significant to the story behind the story of The Naked Prey, and why it remains in the conversation, primarily thanks to The Criterion Collection. A successful actor in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Wilde can boast one of the most pronounced career “second acts” as he turned to being a filmmaker, typically making films on his own, often unique terms.
In Cornel Wilde’s eight-film directorial filmography, The Naked Prey leads the pack, bursting onto mid-decade cinema screens with its savage (certainly for the time, if not also today) moments of torture, killing, animal death (sourced from jungle stock footage, but real death nonetheless), and even an arterial spray or two.
This, and several other unsettling atrocities, occur when the shortsighted and intolerant financier of an Ivory hunting expedition led by his character (credited only as “Man”) takes self-righteous offense to local natives’ request of a gift for their chief. Wilde pleads with the bankrolling blow-hard that a few cheap trinkets will save them a world of trouble.
As it quickly turns out, he doesn’t know the half of it. The entire hunting party is shortly ambushed, captured, humiliated, then savagely murdered. That is, with the exception of Wilde, who, due to his valiant protest on behalf of the gift request, is granted the chance to be hunted in the sunbaked, woodsy tundra. Stripped (though not actually naked -- the impressively chiseled fifty-five year-old Wilde soon fashions a tidy loincloth for himself) and turned loose, our “Man” is given an unlikely fighting chance. That’s the rest of The Naked Prey, in its entirety.
The blood witnessed throughout the film may pop like the fake bright red paint that it is, but nevertheless, as the disc’s commentary track points out, Wilde brought new levels of graphic violence to the screen with The Naked Prey, beating Bonnie and Clyde, Point Blank, and The Wild Bunch to the punch by at least a year. As the zeitgeist of human mutilation, both real and fabricated, came to uncomfortably permeate early Vietnam War-era 1960s pop culture, it’s revelatory to realize that this film, of all things, somehow ran in the forefront.
Act One of The Naked Prey is, undeniably, jungle death squirm; tribal torture porn years before Eli Roth got at it with Green Inferno, or whatever. The “Mondo” exploitation “shockumentaries” of the time come to mind, even as this critic has only read about them and watched trailers. It’s these bizarre, twisted, swept-under-the-rug filmic combos of grotesquely authentic footage and staged put-ons that one suspects most influenced Wilde here, though he wisely trades the Mondo socko-shocko revelry for something considerably more responsible. That said, The Naked Prey’s othering of the unsubtitled, often childish dark skinned natives falls far more in line with Western entertainment norms of the time.
For years, the inclusion of The Naked Prey into the elite annals of The Criterion Collection has been a mild head-scratcher for film aficionados. While no one would outright dismiss the movie as worthless tripe, it‘s generally agreed that it lacks that certain gravitas Criterion canonization implies. “It’s Cornel Wilde running through the woods. It’s (merely) fine,” is just one recent audible shrug heard recently on a Criterion fan podcast.
But! The disc itself proves to be its own biggest advocate. Though a direct port of the 2007 DVD, original cover art and all, Criterion’s surprise new Blu-ray is worth a naked play. Once one pops the disc into one’s naked tray, the high definition naked fray is a fine thing to behold. The film has been restored as a high definition digital transfer, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack.
Criterion has provided a tremendous full-color booklet, containing both a full analytical essay by Michael Atkinson, as well as a piece called “Survival!,” wherein Cornel Wilde talks to Gordon Gow about “man and the limits of endurance.” Disc bonus features include a feature length audio commentary track by film scholar Stephen Prince; a short, illustrated reading of the story “John Colter’s Escape,” a 1913 record of a trapper’s flight from the Blackfoot Indians, which inspired The Naked Prey; a bit on the film’s original soundtrack cues, supplemented by a written statement by ethnomusicologist Andrew Tracey; and the film’s trailer.
The Naked Prey, though an unexpected Blu-ray upgrade, does a fine job of advocating for its own survival in the age of 1080p. Not every aspect of the film has aged as well as Wilde did, but then again, how many ever do? Criterion’s re-release of this film is one worth running for.