Mel Gibson was heavily inspired by The Naked Prey when he made Apocalypto. The second half of Gibson’s film is almost a remake of Cornel Wilde’s 1966 film about a man with nothing having to run through the wilderness back home being chased by several warriors. Where Gibson’s film was an expert and ever-increasing exercise in tension, Wilde’s film does feel like a first draft form. Gibson seems to have learned all the lessons from Wilde’s film, correcting most of his mistakes, for Wilde’s film does have mistakes.
A safari goes out from a British base deep in the heart of Africa. Led by Man, he tries to convince the one financing the expedition to pay tribute to the local king as they pass through his land. When the financier refuses, it sets the stage for the party to be attacked, captured, tortured, and killed. The only one left alive is Man who is given a short head start before a half dozen warriors chase after him. Man has to use his wits and the environment to evade capture and death with that base as his end goal.
Characterization is razor thin, the movie functioning as almost purely a genre exercise. Man has knowledge and respect for the local tribes, and he also carries a wedding ring on his finger that the warriors can’t strip off his finger. Outside of that, it’s really just man running through the hills and evading capture.
I would be fine with that if it weren’t for how the movie structures the chase. The first half of the movie is really good. That includes the march out, the attack, the executions, and the beginning of the chase. However, Man accomplishes something at the halfway point that undermines the overall feeling of tension in the film. He’s had several close calls and dispatched several of the warriors. He’s gained enough distance and finds himself in a position where he can light a small fire, attach some flaming dried straw to some arrows he’s picked up, and fire them at some dry underbrush, creating a large blaze that separates him from his pursuers. He then saunters away. The chase feels over at the halfway point, and it’s such a weird choice.
The second half of the film is dominated by Man coming across an unrelated African town suddenly under attack by Arab slave traders. He helps a young girl escape and flee to safety, all while the original warriors watch from afar. I find it such a weird narrative choice. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the event as it unfolds, but Man coming across an unrelated town under an unrelated attack feels like a distraction rather than a continuation of his journey. His saving of the girl is nice, giving Man something to do beyond just being chased, but they just end up parting ways at a certain point. Combined with the fact that the warriors have pretty much disappeared from the film, this section almost feels like it’s a large deleted scene, an excuse to get the film to feature length.
Outside of that, though, I’m actually quite fond of the Wilde’s effort at making a stripped down and bare adventure story. I have other issues here and there, like how the buildup to the initial attack is a hodgepodge of points of view that seems to undermine any real tension in the sequence and the landing of an arrow a few feet away from Man with the fort in sight to announce the re-arrival of the warriors in a way that feels very artificial, however overall the movie is a quality adventure film with single-minded focus.
The South African locations look great, Wilde using the landscape in almost every shot to maximum effect in order to provide a great setting and sense of isolation for Man. The sequence at the tribal village where the remaining survivors of the safari, both African and European, are murdered in horrible ways, is terrifying. When the chase is on, the movie is quite exciting. However, I just feel like the movie takes a break from that core chase for a really long time, and when combined with some of my smaller problems around individual moments, I can’t bring myself to really praise the film as a whole.
I think Mel Gibson really likes this movie, but he also saw how it could be better. He made the great version of this story where the original was hobbled by some poor choices.