Certainly one of the wildest, most original, and most instinctive movie stars turned auteurs in the Hollywood annals, Cornel Wilde made procedurals of uncivilized survival, in a visual syntax that ranges from comic-strip splat to outright gut punch. Watching the films, you may certainly get the feeling, as David Thomson memorably suggested, of “watching the first films ever made,” and indeed there may be no clearer sense of pulp—from folktales to Wilde’s best films and beyond—than as an expression of how deep in our reptile brains the fears, hatreds, and needs of being alive still lurk, unappeased by the narcotics of technology, ritual, comfort, and entertainment.
Wilde remains an unexhumed artist, a scattershot brother to delirious genre god Samuel Fuller, whose three best, though generally forgotten, films, The Naked Prey (1966), the World War II combat daydream Beach Red (1967), and the eco-sci-fi apocalypse No Blade of Grass (1970), make up an ersatz triptych of human self-hate at three evolutionary stages: primal, “civilized,” and postcivilized (it may very well have been Wilde’s point that there’s precious little difference between them). In fact, had Fuller been a little less postmod hard-boiled and a little more dog-eat-dog athletic, he might have arrived at something as pulse-panicky, as pure and cruel and infernal, as The Naked Prey. Insofar as the movie is remembered at all, it remains the best known in Wilde’s lost filmography. It also has the least English or subtitled dialogue of any Hollywood movie since Modern Times and yet was nominated for a best original screenplay Oscar. The film’s plot is as primitive as a hieroglyph: Wilde (identified only as “Man” in the credits), on a colonial-era ivory safari, gets captured by a tribe of bushmen after his fat-cat financier disgraces their expedition; when the tribesmen decide to give Wilde’s character “the Chance of the Lion” and hunt him for sport, he kills their point man and keeps on running. It may be the first entry in the “man in the wilderness” subgenre, as well as the first stripped-down American action film (prior to 1966, westerns and swashbucklers were ordinarily 80 percent talk, 20 percent combat at best). Indeed the thrust of the film is Darwinian in its brutality, from the tribal executions (including covering a safari hand in mud and then cooking him ceramic hard over a fire) to the parade of veld atrocities—it was surely the first film in which we saw a tribesman casually step out of the carcass of a butchered elephant with an armful of innards and hang them over the campfire to dry. Here is the dry-eyed corrective to the darkest-Africa safari romance, the spear-fight-and-starvation bones beneath the chest-pounding adventure saga.
Born in Hungary, Wilde himself began as a man-of-action athlete, belonging to, but never competing with, the U.S. Olympic fencing team (in saber), opting out before the 1936 games to pursue theater. He ended up being the fencing instructor for, as well as playing Tybalt in, the 1940 Laurence Olivier Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet. From there Hollywood beckoned, and in short order (with, in 1945, Charles Vidor’s A Song to Remember, for which Wilde caught an Oscar nomination, playing a particularly robust Chopin) he graduated to buckleswashing leading-man status. But walking through more than two-dozen period adventures, noirs, and romances over the next decade, Wilde evidently began to chafe, and in 1955 he created his own production company (the flagship movie was Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo) and directed his first film, the perfectly brisk and unexceptional Storm Fear.
As his star steadily waned through the fifties and early sixties, in the gradual and pleasingly non-gerontophobic way careers used to linger into a middle-range actor’s menopausal years, Wilde did his fair share of the costume epics so popular during the nascent days of TV. But as he aged, he became less content with showbiz atrophy, and more adventurous with his reputation. What other fifty-year-old star, in the days before ubiquitous bodybuilding, would have placed himself, largely naked, running hell-bent without dialogue through the sub-Saharan Africa bush?
Purified of character, traditional dramatics, and language, The Naked Prey has the blunt force of a campfire myth, but it began as an adaptation of the very true early nineteenth-century escape of Lewis and Clark expeditioner John Colter from Blackfoot tribesmen, who killed his partner John Potts but let Colter, an iron-man trapper famous already for having traversed hundreds of winter miles alone exploring the West, run naked and be chased. (A week and a few dead Blackfeet later, Colter staggered into a trading post, very much alive. Or so the story has come down.) Coproducer (and veteran African photographer) Sven Persson was able to obtain substantial tax breaks and material assistance from the government of South Africa, so the narrative was converted to a colonial dynamic. (Sections were also shot in Botswana and Rhodesia, at exactly the same time both nations were extricating themselves from British rule.) Not quite politically correct, Wilde’s film is nonetheless scrupulously nonjudgmental—no effort is made to heroize the ivory-hunting Man, and his Zulu “pursuers” live in three full dimensions, grieving, bickering, joking, growing despondent, and entertaining self-doubt. Of course, the unarticulated historical context of the hunt is unavoidable: by whatever unspecified nineteenth-century date The Naked Prey portrays, the African subcontinent had already been subjected to hundreds of years of Euro-colonial invasion, butchery, and slavery. No Zulu of the time could be condemned today for giving a great white hunter a prey animal’s fighting chance on the veld. The ethics of the film are not political; in Wilde’s world, it’s every man for himself, every warrior for his own justification, and God against them all.
Contrastingly, Fuller’s universe often harbors the fond glow of remembered childhood dime novels beneath the tough-guy fatalism; Wilde’s vision entertains no hard-boiled quaintness or respite from doom. Still, The Naked Prey would seem today merely a twisted riff on The Most Dangerous Game, or a roller-derby alternative to Peter Brooks’s Lord of the Flies, if its shot-arrow adventure tale were all there was to see. But it’s because of Wilde’s damned-on-holiday visual approach that his thematic thrust has the weight it does—in nearly every frame, you smell the sulfur of his conviction. The African plains have never been shot so unromantically, the clichéd loping-giraffe-and-baobab-tree imagery swapped out for raw dust, thorns in the skin, and hurtful sunshine. It’s a berserkly hostile landscape, teeming with predatory beasts of all sizes. The film’s expressionistic framing and cutting have an amateur’s faith in totemic meaning, and a soldier’s impatience with ambiguity and trickery. The organized pigsticking of one of the safari leaders, by the tribe’s women, is shot by Wilde from on high and foregrounded by a wreath of bloodred flowers. A tense shot of Wilde’s desperate white man listening to the wilderness is so intimate that his ear fills one end of the Panavision frame and his eye fills the other. The fights are fast, merciless, and full of jump cuts; Wilde would cut from somebody throwing a spear to an already impaled body for lack of expensive opticals or prosthetics, but the impression is that the camera just couldn’t keep up. The net effect is of a film on the run for its own life, caring nothing for aesthetics and everything for surviving the experience.
True to their nature as pulp, Wilde’s movies, including The Naked Prey, resisted the marketplace as thoroughly as they resisted sophisticated filmic conventions. He went on after No Blade of Grass to make only Sharks’ Treasure (1975), a tame, Jaws-influenced saga nitroed up with uncut sequences of a sinewy, sixty-year-old Wilde and his cast battling with real sharks, and died in 1989 of leukemia. The Naked Prey has remained in the popular consciousness, over years of TV broadcasts if not honored revivals, by sheer dint of its single-minded story line and eye-glue cinematic vocabulary. (Probably more viewers saw the film while roving the local channels on cold Saturday afternoons during the seventies than ever saw it in a theater; its bug-eyed harshness would catch you like the sense of a real hazard, and all other programming options fell off the table.) But his other movies still wait to be rediscovered, in particular Beach Red, which for all of its graphic comic-book style and cheap slaughterhouse pathos may be the least sentimental war film in the American library. (Fuller’s own description of war as “body parts everywhere” graphically evokes Wilde’s film, not any of his own.) It may not be possible any longer for a filmmaker to approach the innocence and immediacy of Wilde’s ideas—try to imagine a pulp work today that doesn’t have its source in the filmmaker’s adolescent junk-culture memories but instead comes out of an authentic sense of life’s brutality and merciless fortune. Perhaps more than any other one American cineaste, Wilde came close to making narrative movies seem like a force of nature—as simple, fated, and fearsome as a rolling boulder.
A critic who writes frequently for the Boston Phoenix, IFC.com, the Stranger (Seattle), and In These Times, Michael Atkinson is the author of Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema, the coauthor of Flickipedia, and the editor of Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood.