“Stripped, weaponless, alone and only ten desperate seconds ahead of the killers…” When a group of elephant hunters encounters a dangerous South African tribe, Cornel Wilde finds himself fighting for his life in the exceptionally bare-bones The Naked Prey (1965). Based on the actual historical incident surrounding a fur trapper named John Colter who was stripped by Blackfoot Indians, and given a short amount of time to run away before being relentlessly hunted. Long before the infamous italian cannibal films would shock and exploit the cinematic landscape, The Naked Prey did the unthinkable in the mid sixties.
Written for the screen by Clint Johnston and Don Peters, the film functions as both an exotic adventure and a meditation on man vs. nature. Still, it’s troubling to me that this film was almost all but ignored during awards season; garnering a Best Screenplay nomination and nothing more. Perhaps it was Wilde’s public image as an actor that managed to overshadow his reserved yet palpable sense of direction. Each set piece in the film is crafted with extreme authenticity. So authentic in fact, that he ended up being evacuated to a hospital after handling a real python and monitor lizard for a scene. The first act which involves the elephant hunters being mercilessly tortured and murdered by the tribe is also disturbing; another reason this may have been alienating at the time. Indeed, The Naked Prey has the distinct pleasure of being the most violent adventure film I’ve ever seen from the sixties.
When I mentioned that the film was “bare-bones”, I truly meant that in technical terms. Here is a great example of a film that does not need a large orchestral score, dialogue, or thematic intrigue to keep you engaged. It’s held together by Wilde’s physical lead performance, the texture of the 35mm film stock, and an unsettling tribal drum score which rises and falls like a wave of terror whenever danger is approaching. I love films that give the audience a sense of atmosphere they cannot ignore. You can actually feel the sweat and dirt on the performers when you watch this. Multiple times I found myself reaching for my water bottle because the character’s dehydration was becoming my own.
There are few films that exist within the same realm as The Naked Prey. Ones that strike a unique balance between quality entertainment and barbaric thrills. An exotic adventure with sprinkles of tribal horror that makes for an exceptional summer movie night. Clocking in at a breezy 96 minutes, this is one that almost anyone could enjoy. If you are interested in watching The Naked Prey, it is available to stream on platforms such as Prime Video, Google Play, iTunes, and Vudu (starting at $2.99). You can also purchase it on Blu-ray/DVD through The Criterion Collection.