Having finally gotten around to buying the Criterion DVD release of Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey (1966), I can finally ditch the fuzzy old VHS tape I recorded off late-night television nearly twenty years ago (the last time it was televised locally on free-to-air to the best of my knowledge). What an astonishing film this is, and watching the Criterion disc is like discovering its beauty and uniqueness all over again. Wilde, a former matinee idol, not only produced and directed The Naked Prey but also stars as an ivory hunter who is chased across the harsh (colonial era) African landscape by a group of natives who have been offended by the party’s refusal to hand over some trinkets in exchange for safe passage. The deceptively simple screenplay earned co-writers Clint Johnson and Don Peters an Oscar nomination. There is some incredibly strong imagery on display throughout the film, not all of it pleasant (the authentic archive footage of elephants being slaughtered for their tusks is tough to take), and it reflects elements of the notorious Mondo genre at times (the shot of natives actually crawling about inside the carcass of a deceased elephant is both fascinating and repulsive). Scenes of a man being covered in clay then roasted over an open fire still manage to disturb nearly half a century later. At age 52, the fitness-conscious Wilde is in terrific shape (though he later admitted that the draining physicality of the role took a toll on his health). Filmed in Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe), the vistas look stunning on Criterion’s release, and the authentic African tribal chants used on the soundtrack help bring a real sense of urgency, authenticity and tension to the proceedings.
While I’ve only ever sat down and watched it a handful of times over the years, The Naked Prey remains a defining moment from my early years of discovering cinema. I couldn’t have been more than eight or nine when my mum came into the bedroom one late Saturday evening, woke me up out of a dead sleep, and told me "there’s a movie coming up on TV that you might enjoy". It was The Naked Prey. Whether my mum sensed that there was an emerging film buff in me I’ll never now, but it - like the film itself - is a memory that has stuck with me ever since.