Directed by Cornel Wilde
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 96 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
Release Date: January 15, 2008
Review Date: January 2, 2008
Based on the story of the American hunter John Colter who was pursued by Blackfoot Indians for days in an attempt to escape their wrath, The Naked Prey works with much the same premise with just a touch of Richard Connell’s "The Most Dangerous Game” thrown into the mix. It’s an exciting picture, well directed by actor-turned-director Cornel Wilde (and starring himself), and obviously the basis for dozens of pursuit-for-survival movies (the most recent being Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto) in the years since.
A safari guide (Cornel Wilde) finds his entire group wiped out by a South African tribe angry at the leader’s (Gert Van Den Bergh) arrogant refusal to pay tribute to their chief. Owing to their respect for his knowledge of their language and his willingness to pay tribute, the man is offered an honorable death by being given a head start before a band of warriors tracks and kills him. Escaping from the first assault and gathering some weapons and a water container, the man dives into the unknown territory intent on staying alive at whatever cost despite a lack of food and the punishing African sun. His ingenuity and some blind luck both play a part in keeping him alive day after day, but the jungle is full of many types of predators, and the tribesmen are only one foe he must manage to foil during his several day ordeal. There are many surprises ahead for him and for the viewer.
Wilde captures the look and feel of the jungle with his Panavision cameras remarkably well (aided by a drumming music score that keeps one’s senses tweaked and on edge). Some of the scenes are beautifully conceived and composed (a walk through a viper pit, a shot of the tribesmen on a high level and their running prey underneath them). He inserts a fair amount of footage into the picture picturing various predators of the continent tracking and killing their prey (a few too many times, I felt), and we get the symbolism immediately. The guide is prey for any number of creatures both human and non, and he can never actually relax until he can find sanctuary with his own people. The movie, too, is unique with its paucity of dialog after the initial twenty minutes (except when the natives speak with one another which is not subtitled; it doesn’t need to be).
The script by Clint Johnson and Don Peters doesn’t portray the Africans as senseless savages. They have their pride and feel rightfully insulted by this band of white interlopers who show them no respect. We also see them grieve piteously when one after another of their party is killed by the guide, something rare to see in English-language movies. They are feeling, caring individuals with hearts and souls and determination equal to the white man. That’s precisely why the identity of who will end up triumphant is never certain, making the film all the more unusual and affecting.
Cornel Wilde looks to be in remarkable shape to undergo the rigors of this very physical role, and he’s matched every step of the way by Ken Gampu as his chief adversary. Gampu’s character is so fascinating from the very first moment when he’s denied any trinkets to take back to his chief. His look of shocked disbelief and humiliation is unforgettable at that moment they walk past him, and his growing sense of outrage and obsession with killing is palpable as the film continues.
The 2.35:1 Panavision theatrical frame is beautifully captured in this excellent anamorphic transfer. Close-ups are as close to high definition as it’s possible for standard definition to be, and colors are solid without ever blooming. Sharpness is so vivid that one can easily see the flesh colored bikini that Wilde wears in the scenes where he is supposedly naked. There’s one hair and one noticeable bit of debris (both possibly present on the original negative), but otherwise, the image is clean and quite beautiful. The stock footage and second unit photography, sadly, looks sourced from something other than a Panavision camera and blends in poorly with the first unit camerawork thus giving those shots a blurred, grainy presence that sometimes jars with scenes both before and after it. The film has been divided into 20 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track has some hiss, and otherwise is as limited in fidelity as one would expect with a mono audio track from a low budget film of this period. It’s certainly adequate for the movie it’s connected to, but one aches to think of the marvelous surround opportunities available had the technology and budget at the time allowed it.
Film historian Stephen Prince offers an outstanding audio commentary on the disc. His analysis of the film is thoughtful, honest, and on-point about many of the aspects of the film which make it unique. There’s not a silent moment during the entire 96 minute feature.
“John Colter’s Escape” is a 4½-minute short story by Addison Erwin Shellon which is read by actor Paul Giamatti and illustrated with 4:3 maps and drawings. This is the tale which formed the basis of the screenplay for this film.
The eighteen soundtrack session music cues by musicologist Andrew Tracey are offered for individual listening. This includes the drums and chanting that are heard continuously through the picture. Tracey also contributes a mini-essay that introduces this section of the disc.
The original theatrical trailer which gives the film a somewhat misleading melodramatic slant that the actual movie doesn’t have is offered here in a 3-minute anamorphic transfer.
A 28-page booklet contains an appreciation of the film by critic Michael Atkinson, excerpts from a 1970 Cornel Wilde interview session with film writer Gordon Gow, and some interesting stills from the movie.
The Naked Prey is an outstanding action film and in retrospect something of a think piece on the nature of pride and the instinct for survival. It comes highly recommended.