Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.
There’s a difference between a screenplay and a script. Nowhere is that more evident than in a film like The Naked Prey. There’s clearly a screenplay here, but for most of the film’s running time, the only dialog is in a southeast African Bantu language without subtitles. There’s a bit of English at the start and in the final few minutes, but the bulk of the film is done without any speech from the unnamed main character. Remade today, The Naked Prey would be a 90-minute monologue instead of focusing on the survival of the main character.
The man (played by director Cornell Wilde) is a safari guide leading a hunting expedition through an unidentified part of Africa. The man paying for the expedition (Gert van der Bergh) is the epitome of a colonialist, the sort of person who would be easy for the audience to hate on sight even in the mid-1960s. The bulk of his dialog is about how much he’s enjoyed shooting elephants and how he’d like to get started in the slave trade. It’s not too surprising then that when the hunting party meets a group of natives who expect gifts for their chief, the hunter snubs them despite being warned.
And, of course, the natives retaliate. The hunting party is captured and the various native carriers are quickly wiped out. The four white men have special punishments assigned to them. With three killed off in gruesome ways, we’re left with our unnamed man (Wilde’s character—since no one has a name it’s difficult to be clear) who is stripped down and told to run toward a fired arrow. He does, and as soon as he reaches the arrow, one-by-one, a gang of the natives take off in pursuit to hunt him down. It’s a game, more or less—the group pursues with intent to kill him, assuming that it won’t take too long.
However, the first native misses with his assegai, and the man kills him and takes everything off the body, and now the hunt is on. What follows—about an hour of film—is the man running through the veldt while being pursued by a group intent on killing him. Aside from a moment near the end when the man encounters a gang of slavers raiding a village and he rescues a young girl (Bella Randles), the entire film is this chase.
Despite the film being this simple, there’s a surprising amount to unpack here. The Naked Prey is loosely based on the true story of John Colter, who was captured and then pursued in a similar game by Blackfoot warriors in Wyoming in the early 19th century. The switch to an African location happened mainly for budget reasons, but the essential story is the same.
One point that needs to be looked at is the film’s portrayal of the African natives. Initially, we’re led to believe that these are, in the parlance of the time, savages. The first half hour of The Naked Prey does nothing to change that basic opinion. As the chase continues and as the man learns to fight back and slowly kill off those who are pursuing him, we start to learn about these men in some ways. They are generally treated respectfully. There’s real grief when one of their number falls, and real funerary rituals performed. We’re still left with an impression of something like savagery, but it becomes one of a more noble savage than anything else. Sure, that still doesn’t play that well 50 years later, but it’s mildly progressive for the mid-1960s.
The main issue with the film now is the vast amount of animal death that happens. According to IMDb, in his role as director Wilde was adamant that animals shouldn’t really be killed for his film, which I appreciate. What that may mean instead is that we’re getting some stock footage in places. I get the reason for this—the main character has been put in a kill or be killed situation, and these scenes of animals slaughtering each other are meant to enhance that fact. It’s the hunting footage from the start that I really have trouble with, though. It seems so pointless.
The Naked Prey is also surprisingly violent in places. There’s nothing terribly gory by current standards (although watching a man crawl out of an elephant carcass holding a chunk of meet is a bit shocking), but a couple of the early deaths of the hunters are pretty disturbing.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Cornell Wilde, but I like him in this. It might be because he’s suited for the role. Wilde was in great physical shape, and he looks like he’d really be able to run across large chunks of South Africa in a loincloth and cobbled together sandals. Part of it might be that it focuses almost entirely on his survival and he keeps his mouth shut in general. It might really be that this is where Wilde belonged, instead of playing Chopin or a trapeze artist. Wilde makes a convincing action hero, a fact that surprises me for some reason.
What really makes The Naked Prey work, though, is that it doesn’t try to do more than it can. It gives us a basic story and doesn’t fancy it up at all. It works because it’s nothing more than what it is—there’s no attempt to build it up beyond a basic story of survival. It’s not one I’d choose that often, but it works better on film than it does on paper.
Why to watch The Naked Prey: It’s all about the story.
Why not to watch: Lots of animal death footage.