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The Criterion Completist – The Naked Prey (1966)

February 9, 2013



written by:  Clint Johnston and Don Peters

produced by: Cornel Wilde and Sven Persson

directed by: Cornel Wilde

rating: none

runtime: 96 min.

U.S. release date: June 14, 1966

DVD/Blu-ray release date: January 15, 2008


In the season Five episode of Mad Men “Far Away Places”, the character Peggy and her boyfriend Abe get in an argument over which movie to see, “Born Free” or “The Naked Prey”.  The series attempts to draw parallels between masculine and feminine identities, and the emerging war of the sexes (Peggy goes to see “Born Free”, the story a lioness cub raised in captivity, a metaphor for her particular situation).  “The Naked Prey” on the other hand is a story of man, and his epic battle against nature for his very survival.

The film’s story is as basic as it gets. Cornel Wilde (known only as “Man” in the credits) leads a safari through Africa, hunting elephants for ivory.  After disgracing a local tribe due to a lack of tribute gifts, they are captured.  The other men are all graphically tortured and killed (one man is covered in mud and slowly roasted over a fire, while another is stabbed to death by a group of topless, spear-wielding women).  Wilde is stripped to his skivvies and given a chance to survive and be hunted for sport.  He gets a 60 second head start, and then one by one, the tribesmen come after him.  Wilde manages to kill the point man (Ken Gampu), take his spear and water skein, and then bolt into the jungle.  The entire rest of the film becomes an epic story of survival, as Wilde must battle the relentless group of warriors, thirst and starvation, the harsh African environment and even a group of merciless slave traders along the way to his goal of reaching civilization.




The film has maybe a dozen lines of dialogue throughout, all in the opening scenes, in English and subtitled Swahili, yet was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar.  That is because the film succeeds so well with so few words.  Wilde puts in an incredible performance as the hunted man, and the desperation and exhilaration shines through his crazed eyes.  The tribesmen are all excellently played by African actors, including Ken Gampu as the leader of the hunters, who would go on to star in “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and dozens of other films.

The music also plays a huge part in maintaining the nail-biting pace.  Wilde hired all African musicians to compose a score played entirely on authentic African instruments.  Continuously throughout the film, we hear a single bongo note being played, like a dripping faucet, that increases in tempo and intensity as the action draws closer.  The effect is riveting, and keeps the film flying along (a special feature on the otherwise bare Criterion disc lets the viewer play all the music cues scene by scene and gives more background on the recording of the score).




Actor-turned-director Cornel Wilde had originally wanted to film the true life account of John Colter, a beaver trapper with the Lewis and Clark expedition, who was captured, and then set loose for hunt, by the Blackfoot Indians in what is now modern-day Montana.  But due to tax breaks offered by the South African government, Wilde retooled his story and decided to shoot on location entirely in Africa.  The scenes are breathtaking, yet show the wilderness as a harsh place filled with danger and death at every turn. Intercut between scenes of the chase are National Geographic worthy shots of cheetahs taking down gazelles and snakes battling giant lizards that parallel and highlight Wilde’s desperate escape.

The Naked Prey was released in a pre-politically correct atmosphere, yet withholds judgment on its characters.  The ivory hunt is graphic and disturbing, as we watch a fat, cackling drunken Brit gunning down elephants in the wild.  Later, as the animals are brutally butchered, Wilde scolds him for shooting elephants that had no ivory, but the man claims it was just “for sport”, foreshadowing the upcoming hunt for man.  The tribesmen are depicted as savage and brutal, but also live by a code of honor, which Wilde acknowledges at the very end as the hunter and hunted lock eyes in recognition and respect.

The film, simple as it is, seems quite influential on the action genre and on survival movies in particular such as recent fare like “The Grey” and Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto”, which lifts the premise wholesale.  Ultimately, “The Naked Prey” is a fantastically vivid and engaging action film, one of the first of its kind, colorful, brutal and honest.












Matt Streets saw his first film in 1980, when his parents took him to see Robert Altman’s “Popeye” at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, IL.  Since that rocky start, he has become a lifelong movie fan, and has written film reviews on and off since giving “Medicine Man” two stars for his high school newspaper back in 1992.  He is currently attempting the insane feat of watching every single film in the Criterion Collection as The Criterion Completist.






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