Today remembered mostly, if at all, as a minor swashbuckler of strapping physique and scant charm, Cornel Wilde deserves more attention as the maker of a series of eccentric pictures that reflect, with an often beguiling bluntness, the personal concerns of the former Olympic fencer-turned-Hollywood adventure star. The Naked Prey, Wilde’s most famous film as a director, offers a vision of survival at its starkest, boiled down to physical endurance, reflexes, and the desperate need to keep ahead of the foe snapping at your heels. Set in colonial-era Africa (described, in one of the film’s six or seven lines of dialogue, as “the vast, dark unknown”), it stars Wilde as a white safari guide who’s captured by the local tribesmen after the arrogant ivory hunters he’s escorting offend the native chief. His companions are summarily butchered, but Wilde’s character gets “the Chance of the Lion,” stripped down and given a head start in a race for his life with a group of warriors behind him. Basically an extended skirmish, Naked Prey plays like a feature-length expansion of Henry Fonda’s dash through the woodlands in Drums Along the Mohawk, and indeed, the lean narrative was inspired by 19th-century trapper John Colter’s legendary escape from the Blackfoot Indians. It’s easy to pick on the naiveté of this Tarzan worldview, which seems blind to the racial conflict and colonialist-fantasy implications imbedded in the story; better to focus on the beastly force of Wilde’s widescreen compositions, odd wildlife punctuations, and boldly artless editing. Wilde has a hungry eye for harsh landscapes and strong colors, which, coupled with the film’s evocative sound design, forges an obsessive, personal style; he may not feel the need to seek crucifixions like that other actor-auteur Mel Gibson, but he finds something spiritual in the sheer relentlessness of the journey of his own naked self. A purified chase film, Naked Prey nevertheless is at its most affecting in the childlike scenes between the main character and a young native girl he befriends along the way, a fragile yet hopeful friendship which Wilde extends across race, age, gender, and language barriers, suggesting that, in an universe designed in terms of predator and prey, compassion is what truly separates human beings from animals.
Cornel Wilde's blend of primitivism and sophistication fills Criterion's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer vibrantly: Much of the documentary footage of critters devouring each other seems faded beyond repair, but elsewhere the image is sharp, the sun blasts, and skin tones glisten. The sound design-incorporating native chants, drums, and the sounds of animals and flying spears-is sharp.
Film scholar Stephen Prince examines Wilde's background as both actor and filmmaker on his commentary, along with details on the grueling nature of the shoot, the submerged symbolism of the hero's trek, and the film's unmistakable influence on Gibson's Apocalypto. "John Colter's Escape," a 1913 record of the trapper's frontier escapade, is adroitly read by Paul Giamatti, while the fascinating soundtrack gets a feature of its own. The theatrical trailer is also included, along with a booklet with a characteristically vivid article by Michael Atkinson and a 1970 interview with Wilde.
Cornel Wilde's directorial career is ripe for rediscovery. This pure, relentless yarn is a great place to start.