Features | Beyond Brut: The Art of Cornel Wilde

Andrew Tracy

Celebrating the primal and primitive in cinema is a convenient fiction of criticism. To speak of a medium entirely premised on advanced technology as if it were an eruption from a bloodily liberated id—as if camera, crew, and equipment were merely the tactile extensions of the Neanderthal artist’s fingers smearing paint against the cave wall—is, of course, absurd. That the trope can be used at all is precisely because nobody takes its premise seriously; it’s simply another rhetorical club against genteelism, violating the middlebrow “cinema of quality” at its manicured root. While it may be a useful polemical device, its value in actually helping us understand films is limited, and often distorting. This is hardly the first instance where critical rhetoric has taken a sharp detour from filmic reality, but the particular irritation of the “primal” is that, by way of its implicit connection to unmediated authenticity, it brooks no argument and furthers no discussion. The primal is an end unto itself—indeed, the only “real” end to our supposed bestial natures and an excuse for pale, sallow-cheeked scribblers to carouse in print like lusty buccaneers, while neglecting the testimony of the films themselves.

This kind of extrafilmic verbiage mars the little serious consideration (at least in English) of the still underappreciated and misrepresented Cornel Wilde, whose eight-film career as producer and director transformed him from plodding if pleasant leading man to purveyor of blood and gore par excellence. David Thomson refers to Wilde as “childlike,” compares his films to cave paintings, and opines that “there are moments where one has the illusion of watching the first films ever made”; Michael Atkinson, in a long and laudatory decade-old article in Film Comment, similarly tarnishes some intelligent appraisal with prosaic hyperthyroidism, loading the first page alone with “primeval ooze,” “untamed ids,” “reptile brains,” and the “truths of pre-intellect, pre-reason, [and] pagan qualm, the truth of the troglodytes.” One wonders how Wilde managed to deliver instructions to his cast and crew in the midst of his grunting and scraping for insects in the sand.

Thomson and Atkinson’s language may simply be (attempts at) colourful metaphor, but they are profoundly disrespectful to the spirit of Wilde’s truly impressive body of work. Like very few directors—Kurosawa, Peckinpah, Anthony Mann—Wilde is a sophisticated and technically adept filmmaker who makes violence his subject, a thing to be considered even as it is being exercised. “Don’t stop to think, fight!” bellows Wilde’s Lancelot to his young comrade during a bloody river battle in Sword of Lancelot (1963), yet Wilde’s practice contravenes his own words—the films never stop, but they are always thinking. Wilde’s directness is neither childlike nor simplistic, but unceasingly contemplative and morally serious. In a remarkably consistent run of four films he made in the ‘60s, progressing chronologically from mythical past to speculative future—Sword of Lancelot, the jungle adventure The Naked Prey (1966), the WWII mini-epic Beach Red (1967), and the ecological apocalypse thriller No Blade of Grass (1970)—Wilde reflects on the tragic irony that violence is not primal inheritance but conscious choice, and that the rules which humans have created to define and legitimate the use of violence is predicated on the grim fact that they have opted for it in the first place.

This attributed consistency is not (or not only) another convenient critical fiction. Wilde’s status as an independent producer, as well as his frequent work with screenwriters Jefferson Pascal, Clint Johnston, and Don Peters (who collectively worked on all of Wilde’s ‘60s films), gives evidence of collaborative consistency to abet the thesis of thematic consistency. In addition, there is the omnipresence of Wilde’s muse, his wife and frequent leading lady Jean Wallace, an attractive if rather simpering blonde goddess to whom Wilde pens cinematic love letters in the midst of his scenes of carnage—an unabashed worshipfulness whose naïveté does not so much contradict Wilde’s brutality as complete it. Tenderness is never absent in Wilde, nor is it separable from his violence, a developing theme which is already present in his seemingly standard Arthurian swashbuckler. While Atkinson groups Sword of Lancelot with Wilde’s ‘50s efforts—Storm Fear (1956), The Devil’s Hairpin (1957), and Maracaibo (1958)—as “gently overwrought genre pieces, each in its own way bearing the claw marks of Wilde’s nihilism and obsession with physical trial,” what is most evident in Lancelot is the sadness and thoughtfulness that will recur throughout Wilde’s films, a tone leaning decidedly closer to tragedy than nihilism.
While Lancelot is the most stylistically conventional of Wilde’s ‘60s output, apart from its amusingly accentuated moments of gore (helmets and heads split open by swords and arrows, and a climactic cleaving in twain of arch-villain Mordred), his thematic concerns are already in evidence. Having barricaded himself in his castle with the rescued Guinevere, Lancelot broodingly turns down the repeated challenges to single combat by Arthur (Brian Aherne) and the vengeful Gawain (George Baker), refusing to slay them out of the great love he bears them—resulting in a continuing siege, killing scores of men on both sides. For those like Lancelot who have made themselves principled professionals of violence, even its renunciation cannot sever the ties that bind them to it. As Arthur states in an anguished monologue after condemning Guinevere to death, the very laws and loyalties by which humans define their conduct leads them to the most barbarous of actions—a truth that addresses not the timeless savagery of man but the terrible paradox of civilization.

Generic trappings and his own initially risible attempt at a French accent aside, Wilde grasps the sadness and inevitability at the heart of the Arthurian legend and finds there the endless, cyclical entropy of civil society which will define his following work. “Arthur’s world is dying,” says Lancelot, shortly before Arthur’s assassination at the hands of Mordred. Death pervades Wilde’s cinematic world, whether in the timeless, carnivorous nature of the African jungle, the limb-strewn battlefields of WWII, or the famine-stricken Britain of the near future. To commit violence would thus seem to be only adhering to the natural order of things, but what distinguishes Wilde’s heroes is that they insist on managing their violence through a moral framework, a system of rules which governs its uses and extent. Lancelot’s knightly code is echoed in Wilde’s principled hunter in The Naked Prey (who berates his employer for killing elephants for “sport” rather than for ivory), his tough yet compassionate Captain MacDonald in Beach Red, or his stand-in in Nigel Davenport’s patriarch in No Blade of Grass. That these rules can rarely be followed—and that even when followed their results are often the same as in their breaking—bespeaks neither cynicism nor nihilism, but sorrowful recognition and a corresponding need to believe that there is a difference between law and lawlessness, between civilization and savagery.

The Naked Prey, the strikingly brutal chronicle of the last survivor of a massacred safari being relentlessly pursued by African warriors, is the undeniable and unavoidable centrepiece of Wilde’s work, its title, scenario, and even character names—“Cornel Wilde as ‘Man’” read the unabashed opening credits—expressing the core of what many take to be Wilde’s tooth-and-claw vision. And yet the opening narration already indicates the subtlety of his savage world: “And man, lacking the will to understand other men, became like the beasts, and their way of life was his.” Choice is once again the crux of Wilde’s moral universe, and The Naked Prey is premised not on primal savagery but codes of conduct, conceptions of one’s dignity and recognizance of others’ worth (or lack thereof). The native tribesmen’s attack on the safari is occasioned not from mere rapaciousness, but the insult visited upon them by Wilde’s employer when they pleasantly request the traditional offering for their chief. The memorably gruesome torture sequence that follows is notable for functioning within a context of law: the tribal chief dictates each and every particular fate of the safari members, which range from beheading to being baked in clay to being dressed as a chicken and run down by a laughing crowd of spear-carrying women. This same law of just retribution affords Wilde, the one member of the safari deemed worthy of respect, his slim chance of survival, stripped naked and allowed to run a few hundred yards before being pursued by the tribe’s young warriors.

While we are of course in immediate visceral sympathy with Wilde—his lithe muscularity almost making him a Hestonian “axiom,” in the language of the McMahonists—what’s remarkable about this seemingly imperialist adventure is that the bulk of the film’s emotion is expressed by the pursuers rather than the frequently wordless hero. When Wilde kills his first assailant, another follows hot on his heels, face and eyes feverish—and the warrior then ignores the fleeing hunter and drops to his knees in front of his dead friend, howling with grief. Throughout the film, the pursuers will cooperate, argue, offer entreaty to their gods, mourn, and bury their dead, and, in one shocking scene, kill each other, all without benefit of subtitles. Wilde’s violence is not simply the prerogative of a single hero to practice upon nameless and faceless extras, but a web which draws all within its grasp. The final salute between the rescued Wilde and the leader of the pursuers (Ken Gampu) is affecting not because it is the culmination of some macho pissing contest, but a brief moment of recognition made possible only by the violence which they have visited upon each other, the will to understand surfacing only in the wake of irredeemable slaughter.
Wilde’s cultural sensitivity surfaces again in the far more complex moral and existential conundrum of Beach Red, probably his masterpiece and certainly, courtesy of Cecil R. Cooney’s vivid colour photography, his most purely beautiful film, as well as the most formally daring. Its credits playing out over impressionistic paintings of war action and domestic scenes—two spheres which will mesh in ever more intricate ways throughout the film—Beach Red declares its daring from the outset when one of the paintings literally comes alive: from a mass of painted figures, one head suddenly turns towards the camera, bites off a chaw of tobacco, and walks to the right, the camera following him in an unbroken take as the painting gives way to the deck of a carrier ship.

Wilde’s willingness to break so openly with realism, even as his battle scenes pack a brutally veristic charge, is carried over to the projected mental images which recur throughout, still frames or briefly moving snippets of memories, frozen moments, and possible futures which give us a quick, jagged tour of the mental universe of men under fire. Rather than hallucinatory escapes or safe havens from the perilous immediacy of battle, these uncontrollable flashes are an interwoven presence within it, bidden and unbidden mental fragments forever in danger of being crowded out by intrusions: a Japanese soldier’s frozen image of his son is suddenly covered by a shadow, alerting him to the presence of a bullying officer interrupting his reverie; an American GI’s mental checklist of his female conquests is slowly drowned in blood as his life seeps away.
The equitable balance of projected mental lives between American and Japanese does not reduce itself to a mere equation of the two sides, however. There is no sententiousness about “them” being just like “us,” as in the dreadful letter-reading scene in Letters from Iwo Jima (2006); each respective vision has its own tempo, the freeze frames, moving shots, and edits calibrated each in its own distinctive fashion. The commonality these images do establish is their indication of how far violence is from these men’s natures even as they are faced with the necessity of utilizing it. When Wilde’s Capt. MacDonald angrily berates Sgt. Honeywell (Rip Torn) for breaking the arms of a Japanese prisoner, the normally terse noncom explodes: “More of these little slobs would be alive right now if they thought like me! I’m gonna kill these bastards, I’m gonna shoot ‘em, I’m gonna bayonet ‘em, I’m gonna break their arms, so they don’t give us no more trouble! That’s what we’re here for, to kill! That’s what they’re doing to us, anyway they can! Everything else is just a lot of crap!”

If Wilde, as both character and director, rejects the sergeant’s zero sum philosophy—tellingly, of all the principals only Honeywell is denied an imagistic inner life—he cannot deny that the dictates of “necessity,” in such a fundamentally irrational context, have little greater moral weight than the sergeant’s brutal expediency. When MacDonald orders an air strike on a Japanese platoon, the men are bloodily, helplessly mowed down while their commander commits hara-kiri; “victory,” as either word or reality, is nowhere present. Bitingly contemporary, constantly pushing past the boundaries of its historical setting (not least in the suspiciously ‘60s-looking decor visible in the flashback sequences), Beach Red depicts Wilde’s desperate morality at the far reaches of its meaningfulness. Where the violent trials of Lancelot and The Naked Prey’s pursued could still be framed as personal tests, the plight of the foot soldier is one of complete arbitrariness. The attempt to control and legitimize the use of violence has little traction when the world refuses to adhere to any rules of its own.
Yet it is Wilde’s dogged faith in civilized humanity in the face of that irrationality which gives his savage parables their moral weight. If Wilde were a mere garden-variety cinematic sadist, the apocalyptic setting of No Blade of Grass, a film depicting a virus that has killed off the world’s crops, could provide the reductive ideal of his worldview: law, morality, and family collapsing under the weight of perhaps the most fundamental of animal needs, hunger. Yet while the genre standard-issues are all present—urban mobs, rogue army units, scavenging biker gangs, and a normal family driven to theft and murder to survive—Wilde once again undoes the clichéd “truths” of humanity at the end of its tether. As the Custance family, headed by ex-Army officer John (Nigel Davenport), leaves a farmhouse after killing its gun-wielding inhabitants (and, in a touchingly useless gesture, washing the dishes), Wilde’s camera lingers on a radio now addressing an empty room: “Everywhere, and now more than ever, in the face of this worldwide catastrophe, we must survive and preserve in our nation the heritage of man’s greatness.”

The horror of Wilde’s apocalypse is that that heritage can only be preserved by acts which completely disavow its spirit; the tragedy is that his characters maintain their humanity, and their memory of human laws, even in their inhuman acts. No scene in Wilde’s cinema more chillingly crystallizes this paradox than when the volatile marksman Pirrie (Anthony May) offers his justification for killing his straying wife: “It’s all right to kill for food now, so why not for my self-respect? I want my rights!” His rights subsequently asserted, Pirrie is obviously set up as the “villain” of this seemingly amoral universe, and yet the expected twists never arrive: Pirrie never attempts to overthrow Custance’s authority, and Custance never succumbs to authoritarianism. “The law of the group,” which Custance asserts as the new law of the land, comprises standards of respect and dignity as well. When the Custance clan takes charge of another group of survivors—after killing its gun-waving leader—Pirrie spontaneously declares that each and every member must approach Custance, shake his hand, and tell him their name. The protracted rituals of civility receive far more attention from Wilde than the shockingly quick moments of violence; shortly after this rapidly cut montage of introductions, a racially charged scuffle between two of the group ends with a zoom in to their handclasp as they bury the hatchet.

To emphasize the civility and humaneness of Wilde’s cinema is not to disavow that which singles him out in the first place; indeed, they are what make that quality so powerful. Wilde’s films, unquestionably, are about violence, about our disavowal of it outside the theatre and our welcoming of it within. Like Peckinpah, Kurosawa, and Mann, the brutality of Wilde’s violence makes it beautiful rather than repellent, yet it is a beauty that issues from philosophical and aesthetic consideration, however instinctive. This is not the truth of the troglodytes, but of thoughtful men who understand the far more disturbing truth of violence in the modern world: precisely that it exists comfortably and inextricably alongside modernity rather than as its negation. “This film is not a documentary, but it could be,” Wilde intones over the closing, pointedly ambiguous frames of No Blade of Grass, echoing the actual documentary shots of rampant pollution which opened the film—a ceaseless carnage fostered precisely by the double-edged sword of civilization. Earnestness should not be mistaken for lack of sophistication, much less for noble savagery. The hyper-sophisticated critics who brand and celebrate Wilde as a cinematic brute, who miasmically wallow in the primeval ooze of his regressive truth rather than trying to divine what his images say, overlook the fact that regression is the least of his concerns, and the least of ours.