The Naked Prey

Actor, director, and producer Cornel Wilde seems mostly to have been forgotten these days -- indeed, a variation on that statement can be found in most of the notices and reviews of the Criterion Collection DVD of Wilde's 1965 film The Naked Prey, but though that disc was released in 2008, the movie's profile still seems astoundingly, and unjustifiably, low.

Some of the reviews I've glanced at also state that the film is good but "not politically correct", which is at best a lazy thing to say about it. Part of what makes The Naked Prey interesting is that it struggles with conflicting meanings and implications within its representation of colonial and native encounters in 19th century southern Africa. It dutifully includes a checklist of Hollywood clichés about safaris and hunting and "man in the state of nature" (literally, in this case, as the protagonist is known only as Man) and a mythical "Africa" full of "savages". (The trailer condenses the film into nothing but these clichés, naturally.) Yet it is also very much a movie about the indifference of nature to the struggles of human beings and about both the perils and possibilities within encounters between people of vastly different cultures.

It's kind of like Tarzan goes with the Macombers on the Last Safari and ends up in The New World.

I would need to watch it again to be sure of any interpretation (not that any interpretation ever feels truly certain), but at the moment I'm tempted to say the plot of The Naked Prey mirrors the progression of representations it offers. After a beautiful title sequence, the film welcomes us into a colonialist perspective -- hey kids, we're going on a safari! Quickly, we discover it's like most movie safaris, and it's got a Good, Knowledgeable, Responsible White Guy and a Greedy, Ignorant, and Irresponsible White Guy. This gives us (the assumed Audience Sympathetic To White Guys) places to put both our sympathy and our guilt. We know we should be nice to those weird savage people in that African country place, and we know that white people have often done to the natives of that African country place things that are kind of nasty and that we'd really rather not have to talk or think about much or at all, so we've got guilt. But they're still weird exotic savage people from that African country place. They're just the sort of weird savage exotic not-very-interested-in-clothing people who, if you don't give them trinkets they can take to their king, will attack your safari, torture the survivors, and throw lots of expensive fabrics all over the place as if they were nothing. We totally get the moral: the Greedy, Ignorant, and Irresponsible White Guy should have listened to the Good, Knowledgeable, and Responsible White Guy. And now we don't feel much guilt anymore, because Bad White Guy has been tortured and Good White Guy has been proved right. And the savage exotic weird native people-things are proved to be savage, exotic, and weird native people-things, just like we knew they were all along. And there are Good White Guys. Yay!

Even in the early scenes, though, there are hints that the movie is not entirely comfortable with such a simplistic approach. The hunting scenes are anything but glamorous, and the editing does nothing to ramp up our excitement at the hunt. The shots with the longest duration are shots of animals dying or dead, and the one likely to be most memorable to viewers is of a man stepping out of a hollowed-out elephant and carrying an armload of guts.

I will admit, though, that I almost turned the movie off during the torture scenes, because everything in them seemed to be trying to emphasize the "savagery", even to the point of suggesting the natives as quite literally blood-thirsty. It's ugly stuff, sadistic and unsettling in many ways -- what is shown is unsettling (a person covered in clay and then baked alive is an image I won't soon forget), but the representation of stereotypical savagery is even more disturbing. The sequence is given no context beyond that of the plot, and I couldn't help thinking that it would have felt a little different if it came after, for instance, a recitation of some of what happened in the Belgian Congo.

It may be that such knowledge is part of what allows Man to stay stoic while his hunting partners are all killed. Or not, we don't know. One of the interesting aspects of The Naked Prey is that it's an entirely external film, both psychologically and literally. There are no interior shots whatsoever. There's also very little to show for sure what is going on in the minds of the characters. We know the characters by their types and by their actions. We follow unsubtitled conversations in Nguni and assume we know what is said because of what is going on and because we've seen similar scenes in hundreds of other movies and TV shows (but do we really know?).

Once Man is out on his own, running and running, fighting to stay alive, the narrative continues to add complexity to the representations. Again and again the action cuts to parallel scenes of animals hunting prey. These scenes are not jst commentary on the action, though, because they are often accompanied by shots of animals observing. Observing what, we're often not sure -- perhaps the action of the humans, perhaps just the movement of the world. There is sometimes complexity to their hunts, too, as the expected victor is not immediately successful. These scenes take us out of the immediate concerns (will Good White Guy survive?!) and remind us that the world is bigger than human concerns.

But human concerns matter, and this is where some of the other complexities of the film come in. We have been led to believe the pursuers are bloodthirsty, sadistic savages. But then we start seeing scenes of mourning and loss. Each person Man kills in his quest to survive is given a scene where fellow pursuers agonize at his death. We in the Audience of People Sympathetic to Good White Guys are not allowed simply to gloat over Good White Guy's success. His success, necessary as it is within the situation of the film, comes at the cost of his pursuer's lives. Everybody knows this -- Man, pursuers, audience -- but the importance of these scenes is that they allow the knowledge of pain and loss to be on the surface along with everything else. With each such scene, the pursuers seem a little less savage and a lot less exotic.

The story takes an even greater turn when Man encounters a village of people being rounded up to be sold as slaves. The pursuers watch from a distance as he jumps into full Tarzan mode and starts taking on the slavers all by himself. He doesn't win, but he does win the affection of a small boy who ends up being the only villager to escape. The boy rescues Man, helps him back to help, and becomes his companion for a while. They trade songs and a few words, but the boy knows that Man is going somewhere that is beyond his own home, and so he turns back. Toward what, neither of them know, it seems, but they have encountered a boundary. This is no Boy Friday, and Man will not be taking the boy back to whatever colonial power he came from to be turned into a simulacrum of a European. And this is not a bad thing. In their encounter, the two helped each other, enjoyed each other's company, recognized the limits of how far they could go together, and set off toward different destinies -- both having given the other a new chance at life.

In the end, Man makes it back, getting himself to within sight of safety while the pursuers are within inches of killing their prey. But the Man is back with his own tribe, and they've got guns. The pursuers flee from the guns, but not before Man and the leader of the pursuers can give each other a look of respect. They've been on a crazy, unjust quest. The whole thing should never have happened. And yet it did, and they did what they were supposed to do, they fulfilled their roles, they both suffered and they both stayed alive.

The final credits put each pursuer's name over their image, bringing us to the point where we can now give names to these people, and can think of them all as, yes, people. And even think of them a bit fondly, and certainly with respect -- much as, I assume, the unnamed protagonist might. He's still Our Guy, and the assumed gaze of the film remains a white one, but The Naked Prey takes the white gaze through its entire history in mainstream Anglo-American cinema up to that point. I wish more of that cinema had extended beyond where The Naked Prey got to, but, alas, even now most mainstream films, and plenty of non-mainstream films, don't reach as far, and instead die in a desert of exhausted imagination, a place of nostalgic dreams filled with wild frontiers and noble savages.

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