Quest for Fire (1981)

Quest for Fire (1981)

“80,000 years ago, man’s survival in a vast, uncharted land depended on the possession of fire.”

While out seeking fire, three prehistoric members of the Ulam tribe — Amoukar (Ron Perlman), Naoh (Everett McGill), and Gaw (Nameer El Kadi) — encounter various predators and competitors in addition to a love interest (Rae Dawn Chong) for Naoh.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Historical Drama
  • Prehistoric Times
  • Survival

French director Jean-Jacques Annaud has had an interesting and varied career, with his debut film — Black and White in Color (1976) — earning an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Movie of the Year, and this subsequent movie breaking numerous conventions by taking place 80,000 years ago and not containing any known language (the limited dialogue spoken by various tribes was written by Anthony Burgess). At first it’s challenging not to laugh at the depiction of Paleolithic humans acting more like violent, primitive monkeys or gorillas than the “civilized” beings we associate ourselves with:

… but we quickly grow to see the three main characters as individuals, and can believe their interactions as authentic. The make-up (which took up to five hours to apply each day), costumes, and body movements are impressively realistic:

… and the location shooting by cinematographer Claude Agostini is often breathtaking. With that said, your interest in the storyline may or may not hold, given that there’s no discernible dialogue, and the plot points all concern either base survival (i.e., the trio sleeps in a tree to avoid saber-toothed tigers):

… or cultural interactions with different tribes:

Interestingly, we see this leading to evolution-in-action, as individuals quickly learn from and mate with one another, thus ensuring future generations will be even better prepared to face life’s challenges.

While this isn’t must-see viewing for all film fanatics, it’s certainly worth a look as a one-of-a-kind movie.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Authentic-seeming makeup, costumes, and body language

  • Beautiful cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended for one-time viewing. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.


One thought on “Quest for Fire (1981)

  1. First viewing (7/15/20). Not must-see but recommended as (noted) “a one-of-a-kind movie.” As per my post in ‘Revival House of Camp and Cult’ (fb):

    “[Unintelligible utterance]”

    ‘Quest for Fire’: When was the last time you thought about what life was like 80,000 years ago? I’m not sure I ever really thought about what life was like 80,000 years ago. Esp. recently – I have all I can do as it is, failing miserably at keeping my mind off what’s happening *now*: the pandemic, the [R]s, climate change, mankind’s failures in co-existing…..

    Of course, one hears stories of long, long ago.

    If you want to explore such things cinematically, you have options. You can watch something like John Huston’s ‘The Bible’ and see the depiction of Adam and Eve – looking no different from how we look now, except without clothes. Or ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ with its apes challenged by a monolith. Or you can even be entertained by Ringo Starr in ‘Caveman’.

    Apparently, when ‘QFF’ was released, a fair number of audience members and critics weren’t sure whether they should laugh or not, at least at first…. before getting swept up in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s adaptation of a 1911 Belgian novel (a novel?!).

    The film doesn’t aim at being accurate; it posits something purely speculative. (Wikipedia:) [In an essay for the journal ‘American Anthropologist’, Brown University linguistics professor Philip Lieberman described as “absurd” the mixture of different levels of advancement among different tribes living in close proximity. Lieberman pointed out that it “would be most unlikely 80,000 years ago” for humans to still be exhibiting apelike characteristics, at the same time noting that the Ivaka tribe was depicted as having “a village culture that would have been likely 10,000 years ago.”]

    Strangely, if you just let the film wash over you, its ‘plot’ is easy to follow and the film itself is fairly compelling. Compared with all we have to think about now, the idea of only thinking about where our next fire is coming from makes me oddly envious.

    Oscar and BAFTA winner for best makeup. C├ęsar awards for Best Film / Director. Rae Dawn Chong won a (Canadian) Genie award for Best Actress (!).

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