I had the privilege several years ago of touring Paramount's film vault and DVD operation in Hollywood. I eagerly asked my hosts when one of my favorite films from their catalog would be released, Cornel Wilde's "The Naked Prey."
Considering the puzzled stares that greeted my question, I'm overjoyed that the vaunted Criterion Collection licensed the 1966 film from Paramount for its debut Tuesday on DVD. As film scholar Stephen Prince notes on the disc's excellent commentary track, Wilde has been unfairly overlooked in the annals of Hollywood history. If the current caretakers of the studio that made "The Naked Prey" aren't even aware of its existence, let another company give the film its proper due on DVD. Criterion has certainly done that.
"The Naked Prey" is the greatest achievement of Wilde, who began his career as an actor in the late 1930s with minor parts before landing his first credited role in 1940's "High Sierra" and receiving an Oscar nomination for his lead role in the 1946 Chopin bio "A Song to Remember." In 1955, he moved behind the camera with "Storm Fear" and, uncredited, with the acclaimed film noir "The Big Combo."
"The Naked Prey" carries a simple message: Nature can be cruel, but humans are crueler.
In the film, Wilde plays a safari guide in 19th-century Africa whose hunting party is captured after his bombastic client insults the leader of a local tribe, in typical colonialist fashion. Each of the men is tortured and killed in elaborate ways before Wilde's character, whom the tribe views honorably, meets his fate: to be stripped of everything, given a short head start and then hunted down by the young warriors.
The story sounds fantastic. But it is based on American historical fact: John Colter, a guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition, was captured by Blackfoot Indians in North Dakota and escaped naked after a lengthy pursuit. In one of the DVD's supplements, Oscar-nominated actor Paul Giamatti reads an account of Colter's feat.
Prince hails "The Naked Prey" as one of the most original and influential American films of the 1960s, Mel Gibson's recent film "Apocalypto" being an obvious descendant. While "The Naked Prey" wasn't necessarily ahead of its time, Wilde's film did go against many filmmaking conventions of the day:
• There is minimal dialogue.
• The tribesmen do most of the little talking, but in their language with no subtitles.
• None of the characters is identified by name. Wilde is listed simply as "the Man."
• The film's score, also spotlighted separately on the DVD, is composed entirely of drumming and chanting. (Many of the recordings Wilde made are now in the Smithsonian Institute's archives.)
• The violence, although largely implied, is depicted much more graphically than other films of the time.
"The Naked Prey" is a film whose story is driven by its remarkable visuals. Wilde composed many complex shots, often in one extended take, that feature simultaneous action up close and far off in the distance. "The Naked Prey" would have little impact without its original widescreen composition, which makes Criterion's stunning transfer all the more crucial.
Some critics have attacked "The Naked Prey" for being racist in its depiction of the Africans as barbarians, but that couldn't be further from the truth. All humans are viewed with disdain -- the despicable white hunter who indiscriminately shoots anything that moves, the savage tribesmen who revel in torturing interlopers, the Arab slave traders who capture and slaughter peaceful villagers.
Wilde's the Man breathlessly wends through it all, trying to stay ahead of his relentless pursuers.
From its unforgettable lead performance to its striking look to its captivating story, "The Naked Prey" deserves examination by those who have forgotten it or have never seen it. Happily, Criterion's new DVD now makes it possible.
Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542