Sunday, April 13, 2008

Queue It Up: The Naked Prey

One of my favorite film experiences of 2006 was Apocalypto, not always for the film itself but for the conversation it inspired. Critics loved it. Critics hated it. Often at the same time. Mel Gibson’s adrenaline-packed film was thematically inconsistent, historically inaccurate and lustfully bloody – and it came not too long after Gibson’s latest and lowest public embarrassment: his drunken anti-Semitic ranting. In sum, Apocalypto offered much to discuss. And yet the film’s biggest cinematic influence, Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey, was rarely mentioned beyond passing attribution – along with The Most Dangerous Game – as an ancestor on the man-hunting-man family tree. Few critics drew any deep comparisons and most didn’t seem to realize there were comparisons to be drawn. Gibson’s film, it turned out, had modeled itself after an Oscar-nominated movie that was as good as forgotten.

Why that surprised me, I’m not sure. I was lucky to know of The Naked Prey myself. I had seen the 1966 movie exactly once, as a middle schooler on a week-long visit to my uncle Ric’s in Cape Cod. We spent days doing things as a family and then at night Ric and I would hunker down to take in flicks from his VHS collection. We watched some then-recent releases ranging from The Abyss to Tremors, and we watched a lot of John Wayne (my uncle’s favorite), but we also picked through titles I would have otherwise struggled to discover: Zulu and Zulu Dawn, A Crack In The World and The Naked Prey. The latter movie fascinated me enough that my uncle created a board game modeled after its adventure in which players rolled dice to try to get from one end of the board to the other without landing on spaces that would result in a spear to the back or a snakebite to the leg or other fatal disasters. Looking back, that week (as well as others with Ric) was a huge part of my development as a movie fan, and yet I have to be careful when I mention it because people get the wrong idea if I say that as a preteen “I played The Naked Prey game with my uncle.”

But why wouldn’t they? When the average person hears The Naked Prey, they don’t hear the italics because they don’t know the movie exists. To this day, I’ve never had The Naked Prey recommended to me, nor have I ever suggested it for someone and found they’d already seen it. Other than in reviews of Apocalypto I’ve never seen The Naked Prey mentioned in print and I’ve never stumbled across it on TV. And yet TV might be responsible for the picture’s modicum of remaining recognition. Earlier this year, The Naked Prey was released on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection, and in its accompanying booklet Michael Atkinson theorizes that “probably more viewers saw the film while roving the local channels on cold Saturday afternoons during the seventies than ever saw it in a theater.” Earlier in the piece Atkinson is equally realistic about the film’s everyday anonymity: “Insofar as the movie is remembered at all, it remains the best known of Wilde’s lost filmography,” he says. Which must be the cinematic history equivalent of: “We’re lost but we’re making good time.”

I bought the Criterion release a few months ago for my birthday using, fittingly enough, a gift card from Uncle Ric. But I’d been waiting for the right rainy day to rediscover it, and I happily found that day a little over a week ago. Seeing the movie for the first time in almost 20 years I was amazed at how much of it I remembered: the Zulu tribe’s execution of one white hunter via cobra strike; the arrow fired into the distance to mark the head start provided for Wilde’s stripped-and-running character (called “Man” in the credits) before the Zulu hunters give chase; the cobra bite to the leg suffered by one of the “pursuers” that results in another tribesman attempting to suck the venom from the wound. Still, while the screenplay’s simple design – nominated for an Academy Award – cannot be forgotten, other elements of the film were like new to me.

The most thrilling (re)discovery was Wilde’s implementation of African wildlife footage. Even before “Man” goes on the run, we experience an elephant hunting expedition in which bulls stampede toward the camera before being felled by rifle shots. My first reaction was to laugh at the preposterousness of it … until I remembered that films didn’t use CGI in 1966 and that the only way to make a stampeding elephant collapse to the ground and stay there was probably to actually kill it. I have no idea if Wilde arranged a hunting expedition expressly for his film or merely tagged along with one, but there’s no doubt that such images wouldn’t fly today. Other images, however, seem right out of a National Geographic special: a lion dragging away a kill, a toad eating a smaller toad, a lizard deftly maneuvering from one branch to another. There’s even an extended clash between a baboon and a cheetah that’s no less thrilling than anything I saw on last year’s Planet Earth documentary series.

The wildlife footage isn’t there just for show. It all goes along with Wilde’s meditation on man as beast and the savagery exhibited by humankind. But it is generally striking on its own. Watching I thought, “This is Malick before Malick.” And maybe it really is. Badlands came out in 1973, to be followed by Days Of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005), and Terrence Malick’s metaphoric use of nature in those films is so similar to what’s displayed here that it’s difficult to believe he wasn’t inspired by Wilde. Was one reclusive auteur shaped by an overlooked and forgotten one? Somehow that would be fitting, though unless Malick begins to ramble about film like Martin Scorsese we’ll be able to do no more than speculate. My guess though is that Apocalypto’s release didn’t mark the first time that The Naked Prey’s influence went almost unnoticed. And with the Criterion release I’m hoping that a long lost movie will deservedly be found again by an audience.

[This “Queue It Up” post marks the first in what will be a series of sporadic recommendations for your Netflix queue.]


Mark said...

Nice post. I remember seeing "The Naked Prey" mentioned in the "Apocalypto" reviews but had never heard of it and I've still never seen it.

I'll queue it up. Thanks for the tip.

Fox said...

I love that your uncle made a *The Naked Prey* game. That is excellent! Is this game still around? If Wilde was, he surely would get a kick out of it.

I first saw this when it came out on Criterion this year. The scene that still lingers for me is the tribal torture scene... especially the guy that is covered in mud and roasted.

I don't share your enthusiasm for the film, but what I liked about it was that it made me feel that Wilde was a man on a mission with a vision and the means to go out and accomplish it. He seemed to walk to his own beat, and I like that type of person.

Richard Bellamy said...

The Naked Prey is one of the best adventure films ever made – my favorite survival film – and it has some pretty intense sequences – including the human-roast image referenced by Fox, which is, to me, one of the most disturbing images I’ve ever seen, accentuated by the claustrophobic helplessness of the victim and the devilish glee of the cooks.

The film is also a very liberating visual experience in that it has absolutely no interior shots. I’ll be looking forward to comments from viewers who have seen this film – or see it for the first time.

Then there’s Crack in the World – referenced here – also alluded to in 2003’s The Core. This 1965 sci-fi/disaster film is one of my favorite B science fiction films. It works on the premise that if you’re going to make a disaster film, you might as well go big! So in this movie a nuclear explosion (of course) starts a crack in the Earth’s core and threatens to split the planet in two! Lots of action and disaster, some nice surprises, a sexy research assistant who ends up in tatters during the climactic apocalypse – what more could you want from a film! Much to my disappointment, this one is not on DVD, and my copied-from-TV VHS version of it has long since disappeared. At times it seems that everything is out on DVD, but that’s not true – we are missing Crack in the World. I’d be interested in finding out if any Cooler frequenters have seen it.

Jason Bellamy said...

Great to find that some folks have seen or heard of "The Naked Prey." In my recent viewing of the film I must say that I was surprised at how much of it holds up. The torture/execution scenes are so vicious in spirit (see Fox's comment) that they could qualify for the "Saw" series – though thankfully "The Naked Prey" doesn’t confuse pain with eroticism. And save one incongruous sequence with a cheetah in the dark, which appears to have been shot day-for-night, the wildlife footage is seamlessly incorporated, sometimes because there were in fact no seams: There are a number of moments in which Wilde runs across the foreground with actual African beasts in the background. You'd never see that today without the assistance of CGI, and the real thing (even distant and fuzzy) still trumps those all-too-perfect but usually weightless digital attempts that dominate current movies.

As for the board game: alas, it's only a memory. But the concept is there and still a good one. Like the movie itself, it's just waiting to be rediscovered.

jpb said...

Lovely screencaps, all throughout your blog, but these are especially worthy of comment.