November 5, 2018
Stars Cornel Wilde, Ken Gampu, Gert van den Bergh.
On balance, Cornel Wilde may have ended up being a more interesting presence behind the camera than he was facing it, though that gonzo accent he took out for a joy ride playing the injured trapeze artist in The Greatest Show on Earth has given me far more than its share of overdraft notices from the memory bank across many decades. Even so, and despite a warehouse of clunkers on his resumé, we can pluck Leave Her to Heaven, Forever Amber, Road House and The Big Combo from merely Wilde’s top rung of acting projects — and these were all even before he took his first flier into directing with 1955’s Storm Fear, a respectable-plus escaped con melodrama that I’ll admit to liking a lot at the time, when I was a kid.
Of his eight forays into directing, Wilde’s best known feature remains The Naked Prey, which, among other things, became a model of drive-in entertainment in the summer of ’66 around the time Hanky Panky and Dirty Water were charting, for all you pop time-machine types. Two things were quickly evident early on. One is that Wilde could direct — the choice of Panavision close-ups and long shots is quite accomplished — though, oddly, this almost flawlessly structured picture got Clint Johnston and Don Peters an Oscar nomination for original story and screenplay despite basically no dialogue after the set-up. The other is that at age 52 or so, the actor looked to be in better shape than almost anyone I can recall from my high school class. He must have been doing arm curls even when he was in the bathroom “voting for Nixon” (as my friends all used to say), and this was before the exercise craze had extensively caught on with the masses.
Though it elicits memories of Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game, which had been considered enough of a staple to have been assigned reading for my ninth grade English class, this man-vs.-elements adventure (to say nothing of man-vs.-spears) isn’t the kind of movie one can imagine as a major-studio release in the modern era unless maybe Mel Gibson took it on. And actually, he kind of did with Apocalypto — which also turned out better than a lot of people expected, though it didn’t ooze “today” any more than The Naked Prey does. This is 101 in survival basics.
Inspired by the fairly famous near-miss survival of trapper John Colter when he took what he thought would be a breather from the Lewis and Clark Expedition, this intended adaptation got a big-screen makeover when the production was offered major tax breaks if it would shoot in South Africa, a geographical up-ending necessitated changing Wilde’s pursuers from Native Americans to insulted African natives. In a yarn that’s not particularly political but, in its own way, moral, safari guide Wilde (known simply as “Man” here) has his fearful suspicions confirmed when his drunken and transparently odious ivory-trader employer refuses on warped principle to come forth with minor trinkets as payment for hunting elephants on the natives’ lands. These slighted inhabitants are dudes who really know how to exact revenge, and there are some shots of a mud-covered safari member being cooked alive over a spit that I’ll never forget and never have over the years. (The natives do supply him with a breathing straw for his mouth so he can remain conscious for a longer time. Thank you.)
This kind of makes the movie sound like a more harrowing version of Road to Zanzibar or of my favorite New Yorker cartoon when I was a kid: the one in which two white guys are about to be roasted in a pot by a surrounding band of natives whose leader says, “But first, our national anthem” before the fire is lit. Beyond this, there is an element here of “savvy white guy outwitting black pursuers” — which Roger Ebert criticized at the time among what were generally fairly positive critical reviews.
And yet, while the Wilde character has no backstory (which actually adds to the classical “pureness” of the adventure), his adversaries are more individualized than a truly racist movie would be: argumentative with each other, wailingly mournful of fallen comrades and somewhat admiring of this one guy (Wilde) to whom they’ve given a fighting chance. Of course, this chance is somewhat compromised: Wilde has no shoes (at first), and he’s given no more than a cursory head start before a dozen or more of his new enemies pursue him over a natural track meet/obstacle course. Whose obstacles include a lot of snakes.
The storytelling is as lean as Wilde’s physique, which is saying something — though the lore is that the actor/director was ill during some of the filming (and, in fact, he occasionally sports that sickly look in the eyes that we often see in our own reflections when we look in the mirror during a bout with the flu or some other malady). And as film historian Steven Prince notes on an instructive bonus commentary originally done in 2007, Wilde is quite accomplished in his use of the wide screen — noting that today the movie would probably be overly heavy on close-ups, which does seems to be the modern-day norm. This, by the way, is not the Steven Prince who’s the subject of Scorsese’s priceless American Boy but the Prince who’s an expert on cinematic violence and teaches at Virginia Tech. Given this expertise, he comes off as mild-mannered and appealing and even notes that he was once a Boy Scout. (That one threw me.)
Until actor-turned-director director Gene Saks started turning out those Neil Simon eyesores in the slightly later 1960s, Paramount always had the most consistently vibrant color processing of any studio, and this Eastman Color release (but print by Technicolor) was and is strikingly clean and handsome. Though the stock shots of animals in combat with each other — we’re never allowed to ignore the milieu here — usually don’t match the main narrative and provide a few jarring transitions that ultimately matter little.
In a way, this is one of those “surprising” Criterion releases — or would be if it weren’t an upgrade to the company’s 2007 DVD with the same extras: Prince, soundtrack musical cues, Wilde interview, Michael Atkinson essay and Paul Giamatti’s dramatic reading of a 1913 written record about trapper Colter’s brush with death. On the other hand, it’s obvious that the movie has quite a following — excluding women who get dragged along to it on a first date (not quite Travis Bickle but getting there). This is because British Eureka! brought out its own Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of it three years ago that shared some of the same extras, though with a different bonus commentary. Someone is satisfying a perceived need on both sides of the ocean.