“Africa splashed into the consciousness of the rest of the world in July 1960 with the eruption of the newly independent Congo, all but forgotten since the days of the slave trade. In the century between 1860 and 1960 Africa had been the province of Africans, and of a few missionaries, colonial government officials, and scholars. Occasionally the isolation was pierced by travelers: yet men like Andre Gide, when they broke the dark barrier, admitted that they saw problems and moral questions of which they had sooner remain ignorant. For the rest, there was Dr. Schweitzer and there were maunderings of moralistic and naively romantic journalists to stand between Martin Johnson’s Lion and today’s New York Times. All of them, for one reason or another, had an interest in preserving the myths.”-Paul Bohannan, Africa & Africans, 1964.
In the text above Paul Bohannan adequately describes the state of the world’s view of Africa during sixties just as he describes and criticizes the worldview of the preceding decades. Indeed the problem of that moment, and of many since, has been dispelling the myths about Africa. This has proven difficult since Western civilization; Europe and the United States in particular, have nurtured a series of texts, fiction and non-fiction, as part of our collective cultural heritage and our understanding of our place in history that harbors a bias against Africa. In comics, newsreels, novels, and textbooks, the myths of Africa have permeated the popular consciousness to the point of a total perversion of our understanding of the cultures of Africa.
This is true also of our cinema. Films like the Tarzan franchise of the thirties, the Abbott & Costello vehicle Africa Screams (dir. Barton, 1949), and the uber masculine Hatari (dir. Hawks, 1962) all propagate a rather cartoonish depiction and understanding of Africa. Even when Africa began to export its own cinema more widely with Black Girl (dir. Sembene, 1966) these notions were not dispelled.
What Paul Bohannan exemplifies with the above text is that, as our society began to analyze Africa as a serious political and cultural entity, these myths realigned themselves, the same way prejudices did, towards the realities of Africa that were slowly soaking into our culture. This is where films like Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey (1966) come into play. Wilde’s depiction of African peoples is nowhere near as jingoistic as the tribal renderings of His Majesty O’Keefe (dir. Haskin, 1954), yet his images adhere to a certain comic book understanding of the continent. It’s important to note that Wilde’s source material was the stuff of Westerns, an account of John Colter’s escape from Blackfoot Indians in 1913. Clint Johnston and Don Peters, the writers of The Naked Prey, simply transplant the narrative to Africa, where Wilde’s character Man is an ivory hunter and his pursuers are tribal warriors. This shift dodges the possibility for cliché in the over exposed Western genre, yet has ramifications that are not inherent to the genre. The role reversal of white man as hunted and black man as hunter conjures comparisons to pre-code pulp comics, and the testosterone laden fictions of man versus nature popularized by Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. Wilde, with an acute foresight, downplays these components by keeping the film almost entirely devoid of English speaking dialogue, thus allowing his character to be a simplified signifier of a man without the ideology associated with masculine heroes in Western cultures.
In addition, the native African pursuers of Wilde’s characters are given the bulk of the film’s dialogue without subtitles. This works as an admission of sorts that this culture is in fact beyond Wilde’s experience and beyond the comprehension of his character Man. Due to the lack of expositional dialogue, and dialogue in general, the film must rely primarily on communicating via its visuals. In this Wilde again reinforces the concept that Man is, like Moses, a stranger in a strange land. To seemingly keep the audience’s interest, Man’s escape and journey through Africa is littered with cutaways to wildlife footage, some shot by Wilde, some from vaults. These cutaways often depict one of two things. The first is a reaction shot to Wilde’s entrance into an area. For instance, when Man finds a stream and begins drinking from it, Wilde cuts to a giraffe, ears twitching and nostrils flaring, thus giving the illusion that the giraffe is near by and aware of Man’s activities. The second kind of cutaway is a reiteration of the savagery of nature and Africa. During moments of placidity, such as when Man exits the forest with a little Girl (Bella Randles), Wilde cuts to a fight between a Monitor Lizard and a Boa Constrictor.
These animal oriented cutaways serve their purpose, but remain symptoms of a newly aligned myth about Africa in the sixties. The likelihood of Man encountering this abundance of wildlife is extraordinary, and points to the fictitious nature of the film. Similarly, the modes of torture and execution implemented on Man and his hunting party by the tribes’ people are also born out of serialized fiction. This is not an issue for Wilde whose cinematic tradition is so close to Samuel Fuller and who finds that truth can be deciphered via fictitious narrative accouterments. In one of the first scenes of The Naked Prey, Wilde’s character advises the head of the hunting expedition to respect the tribe’s people, a suggestion that remains the moral of the film itself; an anti-Imperialist message befitting 1966.
What Wilde understood, as did Fuller, was that to bring a new or uncomfortable truth to a mass audience, that truth had to keep some elements of the familiar fiction. In the case of The Naked Prey, Wilde has humanized the pursuers, vilainized the greedy head of the hunting party (Gert Van Den Bergh), and has not relied on the camp aspect of similar films about Africa. In fact, the film bookends its opening sentiments at the opening of the film with a nod of respect between Man and the leader of the warriors pursuing him (Ken Gampu). Wilde is even more effective than Fuller because he can accomplish all of this without ever relying on the sermonizing of a character in the film.
Because The Naked Prey is so reliant on visuals it makes effective use of fast cutting on action (derived from the Czech and Polish New Waves) as well as a deep focus. This deep focus keeps the environment surrounding Man an integral part of the film experience. The landscapes around Man are unique, as are the animals that make up its mise-en-scene. To punctuate these images, and this occurs primarily at the beginning of the film’s chase; Wilde has employed a soundtrack of African percussive instruments that work as a kind of exaggerated foley sound. These components, music and image, are universal, and avoid the film being clearly rooted in an American perspective.
Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey was not initially intended to be a political film. But as Godard often points out, all films are political. Wilde’s intent was not to slowly dispel the myths about Africa, nor did he intend to offer audiences a new kind of myth in its place. Wilde sought to bend and shape those myths into a realistic narrative that illuminated man’s primal fears and instincts. The Naked Prey is about survival as Wilde intended, but in more ways than one.