*. In his entry on Cornel Wilde in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson likens Wilde’s films to the Dordogne cave paintings, saying “there are moments where one has the illusion of watching the first films ever made.”
*. This is a messy judgment, not least because the first films ever made don’t have any of the qualities of Wilde’s work. I also don’t think we can speak of him as a naive or primitive filmmaker, for some reasons I’ll mention in just a bit. What Thomson is getting at, however, is the archetypal nature of Wilde’s storytelling, especially in his films The Naked Prey, Beach Red, and No Blade of Grass.
*. When I say archetypal I mean a couple of things: (1) a story stripped down to its bare essentials, and (2) a story with a large footprint.
*. I don’t think there’s any questioning how stripped down The Naked Prey is. It’s not just that Wilde’s white hunter is run off into the bush without any clothes (though his skin-coloured shorts are pretty obvious). It’s the fact that he has no back story or character or even name. He’s simply credited as “Man.” Not only that, he has scarcely any lines. This is a story of survival that takes everything down to the essentials.
*. While I’m on the point I’ll mention that the screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award. Despite the script being only nine pages long. And let’s face it, they probably could have cut half of that. Dialogue, however, is only part of the screenwriter’s art. A silent movie can have a great script. I do question the quality of the script here, however. Aside from the lack of dialogue, there really isn’t much to it. The concept isn’t terribly original, and it’s basically just a long chase film. I don’t see how this qualifies as a great screenplay.
*. The other archetypal quality the film has can be seen in the way it suggests so many other stories and genres. I guess first among these would be the descendants of The Most Dangerous Game, a movie Wilde said he’d been inspired by that counts as the forefather of the “hunting-humans” genre. It’s also the case that many such films have the prey being a hunter himself, or guide, who experiences the tables being turned. This was the case in The Most Dangerous Game and Run for the Sun, as well as more recent films following the same script such as Beyond the Reach.
*. As well as a hunting-humans story it’s also a Western. The primary source was in fact a (supposedly) true story about a man, John Colter, escaping Blackfoot warriors in 1809 Wyoming. The frontiers have changed here, but it is still a tale of the frontier. It’s just that the nature of the boundary that frontier marks has gotten blurry.
*. Another genre we may think of is the cannibal movies following in the wake of Cannibal Holocaust. Yes, the natives are presented sympathetically for the most part here, but the torture games are shockingly cruel, and even more so given the time. Then there is the nature footage included, which serves some thematic purpose but which mainly just foreshadows the use of similar material in the cannibal films, situating humanity only on a continuum of predatory nature.
*. So it’s a very basic story, presented in its most elemental form. If you want to read more into it, as having something to say about apartheid for example, then that’s fine. But I think you have to work hard to do so. I’ll confess the more I look into it the less I see. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie, but just that I don’t think it’s very deep.
*. It is, however, handled with skill. Wilde isn’t a great director, but he has more than his share of moments. There’s the way the widescreen makes the tilt of his head to show his listening for the sounds of an ambush so expressive. The way the canopy of flowers covers up the murder of the bird man. The way we pan away from Wilde hiding behind a tree to look at his pursuer, only to reveal his disappearance when we pan back. This is all very nice, and it’s complemented with good photography throughout. The only problem being that the borrowed Wild Kingdom footage jars.
*. Wilde’s is a mostly physical performance, not just without words but with little emotion on display. He is not, however, one-dimensional. He can feel respect for his pursuers and become ecstatic at seeing them burn. Also, for a man in his early fifties he really was in remarkable shape. I’m glad Stephen Prince on the Criterion commentary acknowledges that jump he makes down the cliff of the waterfall at the end. How did Wilde’s knees manage that? He was landing on rock!
*. I’m really glad Criterion gave this a release, as I hadn’t seen it before they brought it out. It’s a good movie, and the fact that it has held up as well as it has is impressive. I just don’t think it has another gear to it, like, for example, Walkabout does (Walkabout being a movie I was often reminded of). There’s something archetypal about it, yes, but also something that falls short of great art. It does seem ahead of its time, but it’s very much of its time too. Is it the Technicolor? Wilde’s loincloth? The locations that don’t seem wild enough? It was shot in South African and (what was then) Rhodesia, but there were moments when I didn’t feel that far removed from Gilligan’s Island, which was in the middle of its own initial run when this movie came out. Whether in Africa or a Pacific island, it could still feel like the ’60s.