Quest for Fire

Quest for Fire (1981), or La guerre du feu, is a French film depicting primitive man’s struggle to attain fire in Middle Paleolithic Europe. This movie fascinated me as a kid, but I haven’t seen it for nearly two decades. I recently decided to watch it again, to see if adulthood would ruin the magic. After 35 years, it still holds up as a cinematic achievement. Written by Gérard Brach, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, and based on a Belgian novel of the same name by J.H. Rosny, it stars Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, Nicholas Kadi, and Rae Dawn Chong. This was Ron Perlman’s first film. Jean-Jacques Annaud also directed The Name of the Rose (1986), Seven Years in Tibet (1997), and Enemy at the Gates (2001).

Quest for Fire follows four Paleolithic humans as they search for a source of fire, the only thing that provides warmth, light, and security in a hostile world. As the film opens, the Wagabu, a savage tribe of ape-like Neanderthals, attacks a tribe of Homo sapiens, the Ulam, as they lounge in their cave. After a fierce battle, the Ulam scatter and find themselves in a marsh, where their pilot light (for lack of a better term) is extinguished. The tribal elder sends three men, Naoh (Everett McGill), Amoukar (Ron Perlman), and Gaw (Nicholas Kadi), to find a new source of fire, since they cannot create it themselves.

Along the way, Naoh, Amoukar, and Gaw rescue Ika (Rae Dawn Chong) from a tribe of red-haired cannibals, the Kzamm. Ika belongs to the Ivaka, an advanced tribe of Homo sapiens. The Ivaka have mastered building shelter, using gourds as cups and bowls, atlatl, and most importantly, the ability to make fire with a hand drill. Together, the four return fire to the Ulam, but not before defeating a rival faction using their newly acquired, advanced weaponry.

After all these years, Quest for Fire holds up so well partially because there were no special effects. Most scenes were shot in a single take, and the dialog consists of grunts, gestures, and a primitive language created by novelist Anthony Burgess. All the animals are played by actual animals, even the mammoths.  The mammoths, I admit, look goofy, but I was surprised to learn the filmmakers used circus elephants to portray them. Like The Revenant (2015), Quest for Fire features a bear attack, but unlike The Revenant, the bear in Quest for Fire is 100 percent real, not CGI. There’s something unnerving about watching actual lions prowl beneath a flimsy tree, waiting for the three helpless cavemen to fall, as opposed to fake, CGI monstrosities.

Quest for Fire was filmed in Canada, Scotland, Iceland, and Kenya. The wilderness settings are both desolate and breathtaking. The main characters range over rocky caves, swamps, forests, marshes, and vast plains, battling the elements, starvation, wild animals, quicksand, and other Paleolithic humans. The conditions were so harsh, Ron Perlman and Everett McGill suffered frostbite, and the set designer contracted anthrax.

The transition from animal to human is a theme running through the movie. As a more primitive tribe, Ulam males mount their females from behind. Noah does this with Ivaka at first, but later she teaches him the missionary position, symbolic of a more emotional, more human coupling. As the film closes, we see Noah lovingly cradling a pregnant Ivaka, showing humanity’s future. In contrast, the apish Wagabu are a positively nightmarish glimpse at humanity’s distant past. Screaming, savage, using sharpened animal bones as weapons, they personify the base survival instinct.

I’ve read the DVD actually contains subtitles translating the primitive language in the film. When Quest for Fire was originally released in theaters, it didn’t have subtitles, and I think the filmmakers intended us to watch it that way. There’s something universal about the interaction between the characters, and subtitles just distract from that. What the characters say doesn’t really matter–it’s how they say it, the emotions they convey. Imagine trying to communicate with someone from an alien culture you’ve never encountered before. How would you work together to survive? That’s part of the experience of the film.

It’s hard to judge the accuracy of a movie like this, in a genre that’s so typically outlandish. So, technically, saber-tooth cats lived in North America and not Europe. At least there are no mammoths helping to build the pyramids or dinosaurs running around. The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) is the only other movie to come close to trying to accurately portray prehistoric humanity, and its acting, costumes, and settings are almost laughable in comparison. Quest for Fire stands on its own as the most realistic portrayal of the Paleolithic Age ever recorded on film.

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