The Naked Prey

Dir: Cornel Wilde. 1966. Starring: Cornel Wilde, Ken Gampu. English. Action/Classics
The Naked Prey

Lean, intense and pictorially spectacular, The Naked Prey made a big impression when I saw it as a teenager in its original theatrical release. My high school buddy Todd McCarthy – today Variety’s chief film critic – saw it with me, and for years he called me “Gampu” in honor of Morrison Gampu, one of its leading native players.

The story is based on a true incident in which a member of Lewis and Clark’s expeditionary party was tracked by Blackfoot Indians in a tribal “run of the arrow.” Actor-director Cornel Wilde’s film transposes the tale to 19th-century Africa:  After the members of his safari are captured and brutally massacred by a native tribe, one courageous member of the party (Wilde) is given a fighting chance, and is released into the bush naked and unarmed, pursued by 10 fierce warriors. In the wild, he is imperiled by human and natural predators.

After its first 15 minutes, the film unspools virtually without dialogue (and yet it still received a nomination for the best screenplay Oscar). The soundtrack is filled with the jungle’s unsettling chatter and indigenous African percussion. The picture was shot entirely on location in South Africa; H.A.R. Thomson’s widescreen photography depicts Africa as a parched, primitive stage for constant life-and-death struggles. Wilde, in a deviation from his somewhat stolid leading-man performances of the ‘40s and ‘50s, carries the picture with his physicality and humor – you feel his fatigue, fear, hunger, and occasional exultation.

Suspenseful until its closing minute, The Naked Prey is an action-adventure movie that never loses its grip on the viewer. Seeing it again today is like revisiting an old friend. (DVD: Criterion)

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The Naked Prey was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Posted by:
Chris Morris
Jan 31, 2008 3:05pm
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