In Burden Of Dreams, a documentary about the troubled shooting of his 1982 biopic Fitzcarraldo, director Werner Herzog, fed up with nature's persistent hex on his production, talks about the jungle as a site of "overwhelming and collective murder." Though Cornel Wilde's views are slightly more charitable, the producer-director-star of 1966's adventure film The Naked Prey frequently cuts away to animals dueling ferociously on the sub-Saharan plain—a reminder that nature isn't lush and harmonious, but rife with Darwinian savagery. This perspective on African strife courts racism, especially in the opening narration, which likens human struggle on the Dark Continent to the animals. But Wilde's thrillingly primal take on The Most Dangerous Game proves more nuanced than it seems at first, and comments just as surely on the then-contemporary issues of apartheid and the civil-rights movement as it does on its early-19th-century colonialist setting.
Nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar even though it was only nine pages long, the spare script took inspiration from the story of John Colter, a wily trapper on the Lewis and Clark expedition who fled capture from the Blackfoot Indians. Wilde plays the enigmatic leader of an ivory-hunting safari that runs afoul of local tribesmen, who take them captive, torture them, and kill them for the leader's pleasure. One man is hog-tied to the ground near a deadly snake, another cast in clay and cooked over an open fire, but Wilde is set loose, naked, and hunted down for sport by a pack of warriors. As he's pursued across the savanna, Wilde tries to outfox the natives while staving off hunger and dehydration.
A major influence on Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, The Naked Prey has the brute force of great pulp; there's little dialogue, and even much of that is untranslated African dialect. Yet much as Wilde strives to express man's animal nature, he isn't crude or culturally insensitive, so much as sharply attuned to the hideous offenses that put his character in such a bind. All things considered, the film implies, the locals are perfectly justified in hunting the white man for sport. It's a bold statement to make—especially in South Africa, where most of the film was shot—but the film's two-fisted minimalism drives it home with righteous authority.
Key features: An informative commentary track by film scholar Stephen Prince and an account of Colter's escape, read by Paul Giamatti, highlight a solid supplemental package.