The Naked Prey

Cornel Wilde was hardly one of the great actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age; truth be told, he was a stalwart ham. However, as long as movies are made in America (and after the $20 million opening for Meet the Spartans, let’s pray that the end is nigh), there may never be another character quite like Wilde.

He was born in Hungary and spent most of his childhood in Europe; he turned down a medical-school scholarship and a spot on the U.S. Olympic Fencing Team to devote himself to acting; he became an international swashbuckling star of low-grade adventure flicks but gave it up to form his own production company, directing and starring in his own films before low funds and illnesses forced him into 1970s TV-cameo hell.

Wilde’s most notable director/star effort is the sharp, sere 1966 psychological actioner The Naked Prey, newly released for DVD by Criterion. The nearly dialogue-free film stars Wilde as a 19th-century safari guide whose client offends a group of natives already unsettled by tribal warfare and marauding slave traders.

In an incredibly disturbing sequence, everyone on the safari is tortured and killed by the tribe except for Wilde, who is stripped naked and hunted like an animal through the desert. From there, long scenes of beautifully filmed man-hunting (the film was shot throughout South Africa and set to tense tribal drumbeats) are intercut with documentary-style images of predator/prey carnage.

The racial attitudes are iffy for modern audiences, but The Naked Prey is more level and unsentimental than most movies about Africa seen through white eyes. And the action is relentless. Wilde’s movie was originally based on a real-life incident about an American trapper captured and hunted by Blackfoot Indians, but the setting was changed to capitalize on lower costs and tax breaks.