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During the period of New Imperialism, as European colonialism spread quickly through the continent of Africa, an experienced, unnamed professional safari guide (Cornel Wilde) leads two other white men (Gert van den Bergh and Patrick Mynhardt) and their small African troupes on an elephant hunt. Trekking through a southern veldt, they encounter a local tribe on whose land they are passing. Traditionally, safari men offer small gifts to these people, but on this day, the white men refuse, despite the advice of the “guide,” who warns them it is the right thing to do.
Naturally, a short time later, after the men have established a camp, the insulted tribe attack in huge numbers and murder most of their fellow countrymen and kidnap the three white men, taking them to their remote village. After a series of gruesome trials by death, including one man being encased in clay, stuck on a spit and roasted and another tarred, feathered, and then put to his death by the women, only the guide remains. The tribesmen, most especially the chief (Ken Gampu), hold respect for his bravery and decide to give him a fighting chance. They strip him to his drawers and shoot an arrow about 200 meters into the plains ahead of them. He must run, and when he passes the arrow, a hunter will begin the chase, followed by many more each time one man passes the arrow. They are fast and eager to kill him.
Directed by Wilde, it was adapted from the true-life story of explorer John Colter, who was once part of the Lewis and Clark expedition and considered one of the first true frontier men. On a different journey in Montana, Colter encountered a large group of Blackfeet native Americans, who eventually stripped him naked and forced him to run with young braves right behind him. His survival became the inspiration for Wilde, who in turn would influence Robert Redford in his film Jeremiah Johnson and even Mel Gibson‘s Apocalypto.
The Naked Prey is an uncompromisingly savage story that while perhaps fantastical in its overall premise, maintains a certain authenticity that makes this far better than the exploitive film it initially conjures. There are no heroes in The Naked Prey. The Guide is a selfless survivalist who does whatever he can to keep alive, but to Wilde’s credit, his pursuers are also an honorable people given many sequences that reveal their own sense of very personal humanity. While they hunt him, they face their own hurdles, and witness The Guide perform some amazing feats.
One such act is at another village The Guide comes upon that is being overrun by Arab and black African slave traders. He tries to lure them away to protect a young African girl he has befriended on his run. It’s a powerful moment that strengthens our resolve in the character while portraying a brutally accurate piece of actual history.
Wilde took great pains to be as real as the time could permit, filming on location whenever he could and performing many of the stunts. He was 52-year-old at the time and fell ill during production but continued on, himself being tremendously fit, an Olympic-qualifying athlete. A chase movie, he spends a great deal of time running in very little clothes, and the film succeeds best in depicting the harrowing escape scenes, even though by today’s standards, the violence is tame. But what makes it almost better is its rawness, especially in a few moments when it’s man-against-man in the dirt. While we must suspend our disbelief that he would stand even the remotest of chances against these far younger and practiced hunters, what we see is convincing. There is very little English dialogue, but there is no question as to what these men hunting The Guide are saying.
Wilde scored the film with genuine tribal drums and other native music (uncredited but arranged by himself and Edwin Astley), lending a further layer of authenticity to the production. It gives the movie a sort of docu-drama feel, especially when paired with the excellent cinematography that really gives the land a great sense of space and openness, but also frightening and vulnerable. But be warned, the film also incorporates a lot of archival animal footage into the story, including a horrific elephant hunt sequence that depicts the real-life slaughter of many beats. It’s a devastatingly uncomfortable moment. There are also images of lions hunting and killing wildebeests in graphic detail. If there is a fault to the filmmaking at all, it’s the copious inclusion of such footage. The metaphor is obvious but unnecessary.
The Naked Prey is a solid adventure that proves itself to be more than what we expect. While it would never be made as such in modern times, it stands as a unique example of its era, delivering a well-made story that should inspire conversation.