Before there was Apocalypto, there was The Naked Prey. A man chased by a group of warriors through the jungle, with only his wits and perseverance to help him survive; it’s a great premise for an action film, and both Mel Gibson’s version and Cornel Wilde’s are excellent pictures. They’re both in part based on the experiences of one John Colter, known as the first “mountain man” of the American frontier. He began as a guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition, helping them discover passes in the mountains, and he was their best hunter, keeping them fed with wild game. After he was discharged from the Army, he became a trapper and is believed to be the first white man to find what would become Yellowstone National Park, and his tales of geysers and bubbling mud pits were laughed at, at the time.
Later in life he was trapping with a companion was killed by Blackfeet warriors; Colter was instead stripped naked and told to run. They gave chase, and but Colter was able to kill one with his own spear, and eventually fled to the river, where he hid under logs until they assumed he’d drowned. It took him 11 days to walk 200 miles back to the nearest fort, with only a stolen blanket for warmth. That’s a little less exciting than being chased for days by armed warriors, but still one hell of an survival tale.
The Naked Prey moves the action to Africa, mostly because it was cheaper to film there. For this, the film gets decried as racist, because his savage pursuers are quite brutal in their methods. But the story felt more sympathetic to them, to me. Cornel Wilde plays the prey- an unnamed man working as a safari guide for a rich, pompous ass. When they come to hunt on the land of a local tribe, he tells him to give the natives a gift of tribute, in respect of using their hunting grounds. He refuses, and insultingly pushes past the lead warrior, to Wilde’s dismay. He even calls it a hand-out, making an oblique criticism to those who disdained LBJ’s recent societal welfare.
Later, when they are hunting elephants, they are set upon by the tribe in full force. Their carriers are beaten and butchered, and soon overwhelmed, they are all dragged back to the tribe’s encampment, where they are tortured. This is probably what generates automatic revulsion to us; seeing the white hunters treated brutally, we expect it is to make us hate the “savages.” But I see it as outside of our “civilized” rules; this is the law of the land. The invaders have insulted their hosts, and this is their punishment. I really felt no sympathy for the rude guy when he’s put in the way of a cobra’s only escape route; another man is covered in clay and baked alive. Our guide fellow, the only one who showed them any respect, is given a chance to live- stripped naked, like Colter, and given a head start of a hundred yards, a warrior is chosen to kill him.
I don’t think the Lead Warrior (Ken Gampu- Zulu Dawn, The Gods Must Be Crazy, Kill and Kill Again) believed this was anything more than target practice for a young, untested warrior, and he’s shocked when Wilde kills him with his own spear. We cannot understand anything the tribesmen say, but from the emotions on the dead boy’s face and the leader’s, I assume he was his kinsman, or even his son- or maybe just one of the tribe’s young warriors that he was training. The chase begins, now fueled by revenge.
I’ve said before that films without much dialogue, like Wall*E and silent films, tend to engage you more deeply, if you give them the chance. The Naked Prey is no exception. The fugitive’s adventures in the African sveldt, between five murderous men and the jungle’s menagerie of hungry beasts, makes it easy to keep us on the edge of our seats. He has only his skills as a hunter, and perhaps the inexperience of his pursuers to help him.
Like Apocalypto, the stunning scenery is almost a character in the film. Our protagonist uses it to his advantage, hiding, hunting, and tricking those behind him every way he can. He gets a lucky break here and there, but there is nothing that says he triumphs because of any innate superiority. Later, when he sees a neighboring tribe being attacked by what seem to be slavers, he even helps fight them until they are overwhelmed. He narrowly escapes, and meets an orphaned child from the village, who saves his life; they wander together for a while. He even manages to garner a mutual respect with the Warrior Leader chasing him.
The film is still engaging and exciting, and there’s not much a remake could add; Apocalypto has more insane stunts, but those can take you out of the spell a movie casts. The Naked Prey’s influence reaches further still- when I finally watched Duel, the little driver’s triumphant jig is a lot like Wilde’s when he pulls a fast one on his enemies. The film revels in its natural surroundings and uses them for allegory; there’s an extended sequence of a baboon and a cheetah fighting to a standstill; we’d expect the baboon to be an easy meal, but like Wilde, it’s a surprisingly formidable foe. The tribesmen are never looked down upon as savages; the hero is transformed by the land to behave just as they do. Their deaths are never as throw-away cannon fodder; they are formidable, and their obsessed leader mourns them, and treats them with value. When one is bitten by a snake, they stay behind and tend to him, whereas in your typical action picture he would be killed as a burden. And no one says “bwana.”
While it’s still a pulpy type of story, it still manages to be a great survival story, and and a great action movie. The Criterion Collection DVD has a stunning picture except for some grainy wildlife shots which is due to the source material. The extras include Paul Giamatti reading the story of John Colter, commentary, and music cues created by the director for the film.