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.]