Cornel Wilde ring a bell? For movie fans, it should. Working in films from the 1940s and on, Wilde starred in feature films and some television consistently into the 1970s and 1980s. The catch though is that he doesn't have that signature role or film to his name. He was an actor, not a movie star, even getting into the writing, producing and directing side of movies. If he does have a signature role, it's 1965's The Naked Prey, Wilde starring, producing and directing.
It's the late 1800s in Africa and a safari guide (Wilde) is leading a big game hunting party deep into the African veld. On the trail, the party is approached by a group of warriors who are seeking some treasures, some prizes, some trinkets for allowing the party to travel across their land and ultimately hunt. The party's leader turns them down in aggressive fashion despite their guide's insistence to the counter. Soon after, their party is attacked by the warriors and wiped almost, just a few men remaining, among them the safari and hunting guide. While the rest of the survivors are gruesomely tortured and killed, the tribe and its warriors have other plans for the guide. They're going to hunt him, giving him a short head start and then racing after him. Could he somehow, some way make it or is he doomed to meet a similarly gruesome death?
What an interesting movie. As I mentioned, Wilde stars, produces and directs this 1965 survival picture. It is a minimalist picture at its best. There's no bigger scale, no sense of character backgrounds, no picture of a larger impact. The characters don't even have names, Wilde identified in the credits simply as 'Man' while his pursuers are similarly nameless. 'Prey' was filmed on-location in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and simply reeks -- in a good way -- of authenticity. As Wilde's Man makes it across the landscape, we get a sense of the immensity of the country, of the daunting attempt at survival looming over him. The soundtrack is limited too, African drums navigating the survival story and driving the chasing action. 'Prey' is better because it never tries to get bigger. Here's a man trying to live. Here's the pursuers trying to kill him. That's it, and that's all.
Kudos to Cornel Wilde for absolutely nailing his part as the unnamed man on the run. When 'Prey' was being made, Wilde was in his early 50s and he spends basically the entire 96-minute running time....well, running and basically nude (a stylish black loincloth). This guy was a natural athlete and freakishly in shape. Wilde was even sick during much of the production, but this is a remarkable performance. There's little to nothing in terms of spoken word or a dialogue-driven script. Not much talking to fall back on. This is a man with no clothes, no food, no water and no real concept of where he is or where safety is. All he knows is that a small group of warriors are close behind and their only goal is to kill him. To stop, to take a break (however brief), it means death and a painful death at that.
Not that I think this really needs to be said, but here goes just the same. This is a dark, vicious, uncomfortable movie to watch. From the get-go, this is an eat or be eaten story. Once the hunting party is wiped out, the African tribe tortures them in horrific fashion (poor Gert van den Bergh and Patrick Mynhardt meeting particularly bad deaths). From there, the lead warrior (Ken Gampu) and his fellow hunters are constantly on the man's trail. What starts off as a sure thing ends up turned on its side when the man is able to kill several hunters who thought they hunting a sure thing. All the while, Wilde cuts in footage of animals on the hunt, a variety of predators and hunters killing. The message? Well, it ain't subtle, but everything in the wilderness is more than capable of killing, and it's not always for necessity. There are some moments of hope, the man saving a little African girl from slavers, bonding as they travel on the trail. Mostly though, it's kill or be killed with no margin for error.
'Prey' runs 96 minutes, about 75 minutes or so spent on the kill or be killed chase. It's never dull or boring, but there are certain parts that run a little slower than others. 'Prey' is at its strongest when Wilde's man is dealing directly with his pursuers. This is a bloody, nasty, vicious story that never really taps the brakes in its portrayal of the nastiness exhibited by good, old-fashioned mankind. Well worth checking out. If you're looking for some clips, try HERE with nine total clips available.
The Naked Prey (1965): ***/****