The subject of today’s post is Cornel Wilde, B-movie actor turned independent producer, director, actor and sometimes writer, whose handful of 1960s and ‘70s films, while not entirely ignored on release, have now been more or less forgotten, probably because they had the temerity to be clumsily written, badly acted, and directed with fists of ham so great the Spanish could sell them to the British in their overpriced tapas bars.
But wait… they’re also brutally violent, disturbing discursions on man’s propensity for violence. Cornel means business. He’s the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, the Todd Rundgren, of “serious” exploitation cinema. Film historian David Thomson describes Wilde’s film as “childlike,” and compares them to cave paintings, while the Time Out Film Guide contends that they “operate in a strange limbo, with no points of reference outside their own simple view of the world.” Sounds like Werner Herzog to me! So here’s how it works: I’m gonna lay some of Wilde’s best movies on ya, because he deserves it, and so do you, beautiful people. But not you, Brexit/Tory voters – you can fuck off.
Now, I want you to cast your minds back to the early 1970s, or imagine yourself there if you’re too young to remember. Ted Heath has just lost the General Election, the working class are well-paid and reporting high levels of happiness, candles are doing a roaring trade and – paradoxically, given that there is a power cut – an impressionable ten year old (yes, that’s me in the corner) is settling down to watch an old film called The Naked Prey on t’ telly. And by old, I mean 1966, which is eight years ago, a really LONG time ago for a ten year old, almost all my life.
The Naked Prey is loosely based on the experiences of explorer John Colter, who was pursued by Blackfoot warriors through Wyoming in 1809. But the screenwriters, Clint Johnson and Don Peters, had the good sense to move the action to Africa, and garnered an Academy Award nomination for their pains, although they failed to win the Oscar – their pains were obviously not as great as Leonardo di Crapio’s in The Revenant.
Wilde was, at the time, in his mid-fifties, and had obviously tired of studio pictures. Now he wanted to make his OWN dumbass movies. Here he plays the Colter surrogate leading an elephant hunt through the African veldt. When the group blunders into a hostile tribe’s territory, they are expected to offer gifts and when, in spite of Wilde’s warnings, they refuse, they are put to death. One man is covered in clay and roasted alive on a spit (hooray!) another is tarred and feathered, then chased and finally killed by the women of the tribe, and a third man is trapped in a ring of fire with a poisonous snake. Who, you wonder, is charged with inventing these methods of killing? It must be a full-time job. Cornel is lucky though. He is merely stripped naked and given a head start before the tribesmen come after him. Being a white man (and not just any old white Man, but one who is sensitive to African cultural practices) he eludes the warriors, killing several along the way, and makes it to safety (a colonial fort) seconds ahead of his pursuers. As in Zulu, the natives recognise their innate inferiority and salute Wilde admiringly.
What distinguishes The Naked Prey, and almost compensates for the racism, is its formal minimalism – there is virtually no dialogue and the chase is the entire raison d’etre for the film, which was pretty ground-breaking for the time. Mel Gibson was obviously a fan, because he ripped the idea off for Apocalypto, making both Colter/Wilde and his pursuers Mayan “Indians” (see my earlier post for more on Apocalypto).
The Naked Prey certainly stayed with me, and I recognised Wilde as both actor and director in Shark’s Treasure, which I saw at the sadly missed ABC Whiteladies, Bristol, around 1976. Truth be told, this probably isn’t a great film, but I remember it fondly. Yaphet Kotto looms large, as he always does (think Live And Let Die, Blue Collar, Alien) and that can only be A Good Thing. Yaphet Kotto should be in every film. Just think: Yaphet Kotto as OO7 (take that, Roger Moore!); Bridget Jones’ Baby, starring… Yaphet Kotto; “Yaphet Kotto & The Philosopher’s Stone”. I might even write a separate post about Yaphet Kotto, just so I can keep saying Yaphet Kotto as I type the name. Yaphet Kotto, Yaphet Kotto. He’s the MAN, not Cornel. There’s also a guy who gets shot by a spear gun. You notice these things as a twelve year old. Hard to find now, in any format, and laughed out of court by Time Out for the “closeted emotions of the all-male group, which threaten to run riot without Wilde in the least aware of them”. I don’t remember that side of it at all, and I’m sure my keenly developed 12-year-old gaydar would have picked up something. Oh well, guess I’ll have to buy that second-hand VHS on Amazon and check.
All great, harmless. homo-erotic fun, But Wilde’s masterpiece, which I caught on late night TV as a teenager, is No Blade of Grass, based on a 1956 novel by British author John Christopher called The Death of Grass. It’s probably Wilde’s best film because he isn’t in it. No-one would ever accuse Cornel Wilde of acting so much as simply BEING, Zen-like, waiting for something to happen, for someone (e.g. Yaphet Kotto) to do something to which Wilde can respond, either by running away (as in The Naked Prey) or shooting people with spear guns (as in Shark’s Treasure).
In No Blade of Grass, the part Wilde might have played is taken by Nigel Davenport, sporting an eye patch. A mystery virus has wiped out the Earth’s agricultural food sources, leading to widespread famine, starvation and – of greater interest to Wilde and the audience – a total breakdown in law and order. A band of survivors, led by psychopathic, ex-military family man Davenport, trek across country to a farm in the north of England and encounter all manner of mayhem along the way, much of it caused by them. Bloody, sadistic, amoral, illogical and utterly gripping, No Blade of Grass is the movie Straw Dogs wanted to be, complete with problematic rape scene (though mercifully, a lot shorter than the rape in Straw Dogs) It’s an exploitation flick dressed in message movie attire, a string of almost surreal vignettes and violent encounters that echo and foreshadow every end-of-civilization movie from Godard’s Weekend to George Romero’s The Crazies, but most of all cult 1970s BBC TV series Survivors. I’m pretty sure that Ben Wheatley was thinking of it too, when he made Sightseers, since both films use the same iconic location, Ribblehead Viaduct.
If all of this has excited your interest in the cinema of Cornel Wilde (and I hope it has) you probably shouldn’t watch Beach Red, his 1967 war movie, which depicts a landing by the U.S. Marine Corps on an unnamed Japanese-held Pacific island with a budget approximately one thousandth that of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. In one scene a Marine is shown with his arm blown off, but that’s as good as it gets. Mind you, the ever shifting first-person voice-over prefigures Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, and it’s no worse a film than the Malick or Spielberg, though probably not in the same league as the parody porn doc Shaving Ryan’s Privates.
Dai the Llama’s verdict: Shark’s Treasure? The Naked Prey? Are they serious? Far too carnivorous for my tastes. And No Blade of Grass? Argh! What’s a ruminant to do? Me, I like nothing more than chewing the cud with a relaxing cup of mate. Check out MY films, Inca Treasure and The Green, Green Grass of Home (i.e. Patagonia) for a vegetarian alternative.