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Sitting down to watch The Naked Prey last night, all I knew about it was that it scared the bejesus out of my boyfriend when he saw it as a kid. Coming from him, this is a ringing endorsement. The brief narration at the beginning of the film explains that in the harsh landscape of southern Africa, “man… became like the beasts, and their way of life was his.” I was a bit concerned that we’d just had the moral of the film served to us on a platter before the story could begin. But the film that unfolded was far more complex.
Cornel Wilde (who also directed and produced the film) stars as the unnamed Man leading a safari through what is now Zimbabwe during the era of British colonialism. Against Man’s advice, the safari’s arrogant financier insults a group of tribesmen and refuses to pay them for passage through their territory. In return, the tribe hunts the safari group down and executes them in a series of upsetting ways, including being covered in clay and roasted alive on a spit. The Man is left for last; the tribesmen strip him naked and give him a head start before they take turns coming after him. He dodges the first tribesman’s spear and kills him with it, equipping himself with the dead man’s knives, shoes, and loincloth. (I assume he would also have written “Now I have a spear, ho ho ho” on the dead man’s chest had he not been pressed for time.) He flees and spends the next few days trying to avoid death at the hands of his pursuers or the treacherous landscape as he makes his way back to a British fort miles away.
For a movie made in the mid-1960s, The Naked Prey feels shockingly modern. The structure and production value belong to the old Hollywood epic tradition, with its glorious wide-angle location shots and its cast of thousands in the first and last acts (Man spends the majority of Act 2 in solitude). But the “thousands” are African tribespeople speaking an unsubtitled dialect, and our hero by no means has the moral high ground. The score is made up of African tribal chants and songs, giving us the sense that Man is intruding into a fully formed society, possibly endangering it in spite of his professed good intentions. The film also has a conservationist undertone that marks it as modern. Early on, Man scolds the financier for shooting female elephants with no tusks to be harvested, and the financier grudgingly admits he shot them “for sport.” Viewers today will likely find it a mind-boggling distinction, and indeed, Man’s morally superior choice of hunting targets does not save him from the judgment of the tribesmen. The film showcases amazing original nature photography, sometimes with Wilde in the same frame as a vulture or a giraffe. In one shot, Man collapses from thirst and a vulture in the foreground hears the sound and fluffs its wings as if to go investigate this potential food source. This vision of Nature is dangerous but not malevolent—only other humans are hunting The Man for sport, but he will be just as dead if a lion kills him for food.
The last act offers our hero a chance for redemption, making it clear to us, if it wasn’t before, that this is something he desperately needs. He’s fighting for the wholeness of his spirit as well as his body, and he can only do this by protecting someone innocent and parting from his enemy as equals. Both he and his adversary briefly rise above living “like the beasts” and honor each other’s humanity. This ambiguity sets the film apart from other 1960s adventure epics, helping pave the way for the complicated antiheroes of 1970s cinema.
Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.