The Naked Prey (Movies I Want Everyone to See)

[This post Originally appeared on the site “Fogs Movie Reviews”, which is now closed, in the Fall of 2013, It is being shared as part of my series of “Movies I Want Everyone to See”.]

Since the invention of film there have been a number of stories that feature man against nature. Those stories have often cast a group of men against a an overwhelming natural force; Hurricanes, fires, floods, the cold of the poles, the heat of the desert and the savagery of animals trying to eat and live. My own experience with such films include “Jeremiah Johnson”, “The White Dawn”, and “Man in the Wilderness”.  In the American film experience, a number of these stories featured explorers or pioneers in the West, seeking to survive a trip through Indian lands, to build a new life for themselves or to profit from the natural resources they find on their journey. As part of the narrative there is often contact with other cultures and that contact takes a violent turn. Regardless of whether you sympathize with native peoples whose way of life is threatened or the intruder who sometimes acts foolishly and at other time heroically, these stories can be compelling and exciting.  Westerns are littered with ill fated travelers being killed in brutal ways by Indian tribes they encounter (And of course the inverse is true as well, the intruders are not healthy for the native population either).

Title

“The Naked Prey” takes a North American historical incident of this type and transplants it to a similar environment in Africa.  An ivory hunting safari is waylaid as it engages in the slaughter of elephants. The hunters have managed to antagonize an indigenous  tribe by failing to provide a tribute asked of them. The wisdom of the hunt manager was ignored and the bull headed financier of the expedition dismisses the tribesmen as beggars and thieves. The Western legend has John Colter, once a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, captured by a Blackfoot tribe, being turned loose by his captors and hunted like an animal. He survived his nearly two week trek through the wilderness, naked and having had to kill several of his pursuers. The lead character in this film, billed as “Man” is the safari manager and has the Colter part.

Before the RaidThis film takes the story to a credible location and adds some fascinating dimensions to the original legend. Cornel Wilde, was an actor who had been nominated for an Academy Award playing Chopin in 1946. The following years are mostly filled with low level parts in bigger pictures or starring roles in second level swashbucklers. He created his own production company and created several films before this piece of rousing adventure entertainment. Here he is the star, producer and the director and he does most of this while nearly naked on the set for the whole shoot. He was fifty two at the time and looked in good shape despite reportedly being sick with some local bug at the time.

Captured

CookingCreating A CrockpotThe picture is pretty brutal for it’s time. There is quite a bit of blood involved, and the animal population of Africa appears to be threatened with near extinction given the frequency with which animals die in the course of the story. The images are not politically correct because the deaths of the safari members at the hands of the native tribe are gruesome and would do little to endear the people of that tribe to the rest of the world. I first saw this movie in the early 1970s and had nightmares over the grim method of execution chosen for one of the hunters in the safari. He is basically trundled up and encased in clay for the purpose of roasting alive over a fire. The thought of the torture is disturbing enough but it was visualized in a very realistic way and that made it all the more troubling. Wilde’s character is forced to watch the deaths of his compatriots and then is lead out to a spot where one of the tribesmen shoots an arrow down field and “Man” is given a head start to the spot where the arrow has landed. This is where the chase begins.

We know very little about the character. This was supposed to be his last expedition before he retires to his farm, he is apparently married as there is a moment when his wedding ring is eyed by the hunters as a potential prize, and his name may be Larry, since he was called that a couple of times by another member of the expedition. Most of what we learn about this character is shown through his wits and behaviors both before capture and as he is trying to escape. He has a keen ear and realizes something is wrong before their party is attacked. He was the one who rationally advised paying a small tribute to avoid insulting the natives. He also seems to despise the acts of his partners in killing elephants that are unadorned with ivory tusks. He could easily be one of those experienced trackers from a Western, who know some of the native lingo and cultures and often tries to guide self centered troops or pioneers through dangerous lands. Clearly an archetype, he makes it easy for us to sympathize with him in his run for survival.

The native hunters are certainly cruel by modern standards but they are also human. This is a pretty amazing film in that it manages to create character and story without being dependent on dialogue. After the first ten minutes, the only dialogue we get is spoken in a unique African dialect that is not sub-titled. We know what is going on by watching the faces and hearing the noises the characters make. The ten men that end up hunting “Man”, have emotional reactions to the death of their friends, they share moments of laughter and satisfaction, and they turn on one another as the chase becomes more and more deadly. All of this is accomplished without the audience having words to hang onto. It’s not the same as a silent film in which the actors might have to exaggerate to convey an emotion or idea, the story telling is more universal and that makes it easy for us to relate to, even when we can’t say exactly what the characters are saying.

EscargoThe story becomes a version of “The Most Dangerous Game” and a nature film. Our hero manages to turn the tables on his pursuers so he ultimately does have some weapons and a loincloth.  Still, he is alone in the wilderness and must manage to navigate treacherous terrain, dangerous wildlife and multiple human threats as well. Like most of these wilderness films, the character tries a variety of animals, insects and plants to survive on. He ends up having escargot made from giant crawling mollusks, and lizard and rat. The one antelope he manages to take down he loses to a predator higher on the food chain in this environment. There are a couple of humorous scenes that show him struggling to get some food so while the circumstances are dire, there is still a bit of humanity to entertain us.

The photography in this movie is sometimes spectacular. There are nicely composed shots of the chase through some interesting vistas and jungles. As night falls at one point there is a beautiful shot of the twilight sky, dark orange silhouetting the canopy of trees and hills in the foreground. There are also as many shots of animals as there are of anything else. A baboon turns the tables on a cheetah, just as our hero does the same on his pursuers. Birds are both beautiful and gruesome as they hover near the scenes ready to swoop in and feed on the entrails of other animals. There are several shots of snakes which might give you the creeps if snakes are your own fear. One noticeable mistake is giving a rattlesnake sound effect at one point to snakes that would not have that characteristic in Africa. If we were not immersed in the suspense of the story, it would be a pleasure to take in all of the sights as the film rolls through some great looking locations.

In the last quarter of the film, a long sequence involves “Man” showing that he really is someone to root for. He encounters another tribe that suddenly comes under attack from slavers. The harrowing episodes illustrate that the slave trade was one of the cruelest behaviors that human beings ever imposed on one another. Our hero helps a small girl escape from the scene by creating a dangerous diversion. Later she gets a chance to repay him and we have a brief respite from the grueling adventure and an opportunity to see humanity in a place where we might have despaired of it in the last hour. Finding a FriendThroughout the film the hunters and the prey spar over space and distance. This is one of those films where the hunter wisely chooses when to run and when to fight. The fight scenes that do happen are usually believable in the context of the chase. “Man” gets the drop on his pursuers several times and makes the most of those opportunities. A dramatic use of fire allows him to put some space between himself and the chasers but also gives him a chance to taunt them the way that they have taunted him from the beginning. The struggles of the men chasing him set them back as much as his efforts do. The men are skillful trackers but they are not always as clever as the hero needs to be. A dramatic rift appears and it is clear that the hierarchy of the tribe is created by power and violence. Despite the murderous actions of the prey and the hunters, both sides develop a respect for their opposite. That respect may have existed to begin with since “Man” was given a chance in his torturous form of execution, but it is multiplied by the tenacity of his fight and the body count he builds in trying to return to a safe place.

JungleI suspect that every viewer would imagine themselves in these circumstances and wonder if they themselves are up to the challenge. As a kid, loving adventure and the romance of an exotic place, we might hope to think we would be equal to the trek. An adult might wince with pain at the brambles and thorns that “Man” sometimes has to dodge and almost assuredly we would be grateful for the civilization that we enjoy rather than the brutality of the past we have managed to overcome. There are still places in the world where human beings treat one another in the most unimaginably brutal ways. A story like this gives us hope that we can overcome those hardships and strive to avoid ever being in such a situation ourselves. This is a tour de force performance from Cornel Wilde. He manages, without words for most of the film, to evoke strength and determination and ultimately humanity into a hellish world. As it was clearly his passion project he should get the lion’s share of the credit. It is interesting to me that the film received an Academy Award nomination for the script, which was certainly deserving, but that Wilde was ignored both as director and actor. This is the movie that I suspect he will best be remembered for. With a nod to the earlier African adventure “Zulu”, let me end this post with a salute to a valiant warrior, the late Cornel Wilde.

Farewell

Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

The Rocketeer

rocketeer

Review By Richard Kirkham

  [ This essay was originally Published on the deleted site “Fogs Movie Reviews” in the Fall of 2013]

The+RocketeerHollywood in the Golden Age, Nazi Commandos, Gangsters, Young Love, Air Speed Races, Howard Hughes, is there anything that is not found in this Walt Disney Picture from more than twenty years ago? I can’t think of anything they could have added to make this movie better. The story is a clever adventure which mixes real world events with science fiction elements and puts it in the backdrop of one of the most romantic times and places in film history. “The Rocketeer” was a modest success and not a break out hit that would justify a sequel. The movie harkens back to the serial adventures of the 1940s but is based on a racy 1982 graphic novel/comic, which has enjoyed greater literary success than it’s cinematic cousin. There are some obvious changes made in adapting this to the big screen. The biggest change was altering the character of Jenny Blake. Instead of the somewhat seedy “party girl/stripper” she is in the comic, she becomes a more wholesome ingenue. She is an innocent young actress, trying to break into the movies by playing in the crowd scenes in the movies being manufactured at the Hollywood Dream Factories of the Golden Age.

air racesRace PlaneJenny’s boyfriend is Cliff Secord, a barnstorming pilot trying to get his new plane ready for the national air races. Southern California was in a growth spurt when it comes to aviation. By 1939 more than half the planes in the country were made in the state. Aviation was a glamorous venture, which made heroes of Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum has an extensive collection of the “buzz bomb” type planes used by the racers of the time. This was the golden age of aviation and it crosses paths in our story with the golden age of Hollywood. Cliff and his mechanic mentor Peevy discover a rocket pack, hidden in their old bi-plane by gangsters trying to escape from the FBI. The crooks substitute an old vacuum cleaner for the rocket and when their car explodes, destroying Cliff’s racing plane, the feds believe the rocket was destroyed as well. So Cliff and Peevy look to the Rocket as a way of making back some money to restore their dreams of racing in the Nationals. It turns out that the gangsters are seeking the rocket pack for a Hollywood star. In 1980, celebrity biographer Charles Higham published a book that claimed that Errol Flynn, the swashbuckling star of “the Adventures of Robin Hood” was a Nazi spy. The book was widely criticized by scholars and reviewers for the slipshod reasoning that Higham used to reach his conclusions. In fact, Flynn’s family sued, but since Flynn had died in 1959, the courts tossed the case on the legal premise that the dead can’t be libeled. Flash forward ten years and the slander is now being used in a slightly disguised manner. The film Jenny is working on stars Neville Sinclair, a character clearly based on Errol Flynn. The confluence of events and setting creates a truly entertaining story, that anyone who loves movies should appreciate.

RestaurantShapedLikeBulldogThe look of the film is outstanding. The airfield out in the valley is stocked with old bi-wings and hopped up racing planes. The wooden bleachers used at the airshow and the hanger where many early events take place give a genuine feel for the aviation industry of the period. Not too far from the airfield is a diner that caters to the pilots and mechanics. It is modeled after a real food joint here in Los Angeles at the time. The interior is a lot more spacious than the exterior would allow, so a little movie magic has to be forgiven. One of the nice touches in the set is the wall near the telephone where at one point the bad guys discover the phone number for Jenny, the girl they are at that point trying to track down. rocketeer2

south seas capture There are dozens of little touches like this that make the film feel incredibly authentic. In the Hollywood sequences, there is a large set for “The South Seas Club”, an upscale nightclub and restaurant, run by Eddie Valentine, the mobster being employed by Sinclair to obtain the rocket. The Front of the club is clearly on a backlot street but the interior looks luxurious and ethereal. The big band singer makes her appearance rising out of a giant clam shell. The tables, booths and dance floors remind us of a hundred art deco sets from 1930s era films. Only here the lighting is colored in dramatic flourishes of green and blue. When Neville leaves Jenny at their table to go and speak to Eddie in his office, you can see a mermaid swimming in a large fish tank behind him. As Cliff sneaks into the club, he hides in the laundry room, labeled with a nice deco font on the sign. Everywhere, there is attention to the kinds of details that might be ignored in a lesser production.

Howard Hughes and the FBI ultimately track down Cliff, and reveal to him the importance of the rocket pack. There is a brilliant one minute propaganda piece done in simple animation that conveys the breadth of the danger that “The Rocketeer” must prevent.

Suddenly, the story takes on broader implications and you can see why Cliff has to try to save Jenny, because otherwise she could be sacrificed in the interests of a bigger world. The Hughes scenes are some of the best in the film because they feature the actor Terry O’Quinn who has been making everything he appears in better for the last thirty three years. The famous “Spruce Goose” plane that had been part of a wartime project mired in controversy, makes an advance appearance here in model form. There is a fun little escape bit that features the plane and O’Quinn has a line that foretells some of the later controversy. Since I have mentioned one of the supporting players, it would be a little unfair to ignore the other actors that help bring this piece of romantic pulp to life. Alan Arkin was playing old way back in 1991, his character Peevy is the wizened mentor to our hero. His line delivery and general demeanor are solid as always but he adds a twinkle in the eye whenever the aviation mechanics get discussed, making his character a lot more interesting than he would otherwise have been. John Polito, a ubiquitous presence on TV and in movies plays Bigelow, the smarmy manager of the airfield and show that Cliff moonlights for. The sight gag concerning his character’s resolution is funny but a bit disturbing. An actor I have always appreciated, despite the fact that he never had a role that allowed him to be front and center is Ed Lauter. He plays FBI agent Fitch with a sneer that he could trademark. When the tommy guns come out on a couple of occasions, you can see the glee in his eye as the tough guy gets to do what he does best.

rocketeer4The three leads of the picture are cast perfectly. The luminous Jennifer Connelly is Jenny Blake, and she sparkles as the damsel in distress. She is a love interest that would clearly make both men stop and take notice. Her character is also a lot more engaged in the plot than simply being the object of rescue. She links the characters together and her soft line delivery keeps the character from becoming shrill like others in similar roles have become. The scenes where she engages in a uncertain seduction sequence with Neville Sinclar after being drugged by him are incredibly sexy without being vulgar. The switch in character might be off putting to fans of the comics, but it made the love angle much more effective in the movie. While we might have enjoyed seeing her as a Bettie Page stand in, her character is more interesting with the change and it helps broaden the appeal of the movie. Billy Campbell was a stalwart hero type, with an eager manner and a handsome face. He brought a certain naivete to the part of Cliff Secord. The pilot is so caught up in the aviation issues that he doesn’t always see how important his girl is to him. When he sees the propaganda film, it is like he awakens from a being a frivolous adventurer to becoming a hero. He had of course done heroic things earlier in the movie, but usually without much thought. His decision to escape the FBI and go after the Nazi spy ring himself is based in part on Jenny but also on the seriousness of the threat. When he evaded the gangsters at the South Seas Club, it is almost comic..

the-rocketeer hero When he escapes the clutches of the Nazi’s, he grabs a gun, something he had not done before. The shot of him on top of the Griffith Observatory, with the flag waving behind him as he launched toward the airship, is the moment he is branded “HEROIC”.

The final piece of the puzzle is the great Timothy Dalton. Denied an opportunity to continue as James Bond, this was his next major project and it is a solid indicator of the quality actor that the Bond franchise lost. Dalton plays Sinclair as hero, villain, clown and threat. He is oily smoothness when he tries to seduce Jenny in an attempt to locate the rocket. He plays the “star” on the movie set, both as a real actor and as a Prima donna. When he banters with Paul Sorvino playing gangster Eddie Valentine, you can detect the disdain this big movie star, secret agent feels for having to consort with hoods. When he responds to Jenny’s accusation near the end of the film that “everything about you is a lie”, you can hear the ego come out in his retort “It wasn’t lies Jenny, it was acting.”Neville Sinclair

“The Rocketeer” is rousing piece of nostalgia. It combines Hollywood and aviation at the height of their romantic periods and presents us with a credible love story to boot. The mixture of real characters with fictional representations of real characters and finally fictional characters, works to build a fun and exciting adventure story. Even if you can’t get behind the story however, there is amazing production design that will evoke the era in a thousand ways. The director Joe Johnson revisits this territory in the recent Marvel Super Hero flick, Captain America: The First Avenger. Johnson has the right touch for this time period. The nightclub sequences and the stunt show all reflect careful planning. Just as an illustration of the love Johnson seems to have for the period, listen to the big band singer. She performs for a longer period than needed to set the tone and her arrival is special despite the fact that she is merely scenery. Listen to the James Horner score and see how it is used to set the tone so frequently. The dialogue is filled with 30’s slang and aviation jargon and the gangsters look like the crooks in the movies, even if real crooks don’t look like that. This is a great family film and I can’t imagine that anyone out there with kids over the age of eight, wouldn’t be thrilled to share this inventive big screen adventure with them. Don’t be surprised if they start running around with pots on their heads instead of cape. This movie can inspire that kind of childhood imagination.

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Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.