The plot of Cornel Wilde’s 1966 The Naked Prey boils down to six words: One man runs, other men chase. The comprehensible dialogue probably wouldn’t fill up a college-exam bluebook, even double-spaced. But the fact that the running man is white and his pursuers are black complicates everything about this vintage actioner in all sorts of interesting ways.
Actor-turned-low-budget-auteur Wilde based his film (new to DVD in a typically luxe Criterion Collection edition) on a true story about an interloping hunter captured by indigenous people, stripped of his weapons and clothes, and given a slim head start before he became hunted himself. The real hunter was after buffalo, his pursuers Blackfoot Indians; for budgetary reasons, Wilde chose to shoot in South Africa instead of the American West, transposing the buffalo hunter into an elephant hunter (Wilde himself, bearded and buff) and the Indians into African tribesmen. The warriors (spearheaded by Ken Gampu) humiliate, torture, and kill the party of white men it waylays, except for Wilde’s unnamed upright type, of course. Something in his uncondescending bearing, or maybe just his proto-Rambo studliness, makes them give him a sporting chance, which he exploits to the utmost.
The sight of a nearly naked white man outrunning and outfighting black men across their own turf must have carried quite a loaded punch in 1966; today it seems more ridiculous than reactionary. That said, The Naked Prey escapes pigeonholing as a black-and-white polemic, so to speak. The African setting allows Wilde to indulge in some killing-and-eating wildlife footage that resonates with the savagery onscreen, and that savagery isn’t limited to the tribesmen. The villagers are preyed on by slavers of indeterminate race, and Wilde’s hunter is the only white not portrayed as piggish and cruel. Clearly, it’s a jungle out there.