Quest for Fire (1981)

I love a good prehistoric adventure film, and Quest for Fire would have to be the best of what is admittedly a fairly small genre. As a cinematic work of art it delivers on most fronts, being made with care and detail. Yet, you could come at it from a purely exploitation point of view and enjoy the gore and prehistoric sex scenes. So there's no way to lose with this one. It's the film I've enjoyed the most in recent years and I hope I can convey that enjoyment in this review, and encourage folks to track it down and give it a look. An adaptation of a 1911 novel by J. H. Rosny, Quest for Fire is a French-Canadian-U.S. co-production directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud with an invented language by Anthony Burgess.

The film is set in Europe about eighty thousand years ago, in the Paleolithic age. We're mainly concerned with the Ulam tribe, a group of Neanderthals struggling to survive in a hostile world. They have yet to learn the ability to make fire, and rely on a few smoking embers kept alight by devoted carers. When this fire dies out they must go out and find it as it occurs in nature or steal it from another tribe. An attack by a more primitive tribe of ape-men, the Wagabu, leaves the Ulam without fire and depleted numbers. Further hunted by wolves, the remaining tribe-members retreat to a swampy area and send their best, Naoh (Everett McGill), Amoukar (a recognisable Ron Perlman, pre-Hellboy) and Gaw (Nameer El-Kadi) out into the wilderness to find more fire. As soon as they set out they're on the run from sabre-toothed tigers - all three of them spending days stuck high in a tree - and eventually encounter the Kzamm, a group of red-headed Neanderthals who have resorted to becoming cannibals in order to survive, something the Ulam refuse to do. However, the Kzamm have fire, so Naoh, Amoukar and Gaw stage a scene, pretending to be berserk warriors and lead some of the Kzamm away. In doing so they also allow two of the cannibal cavemen's victims to escape, although one of them has already had his arm cut off so he probably doesn't last too long. Naoh is involved in a brutal battle with one of the cannibals and kills him not before having his privates nastily bitten.

Later, when the group escapes, they're followed by the female prisoner of the Kzamm who survived, Ika, (Rae Dawn Chong) of the Ivaka tribe. The Ivaka tribe are Homo Sapiens, Cro-Magnons of the era who cover themselves in full body-paint and are the most advanced of the humans in the film. They have pottery, can make fire and spear-throwers. With her fellow tribesman probably dead, Ika wants protection from the less-threatening, and non-cannibal Ulam men. At first they throw rocks at her to make her go away, but she persists. Eventually, she soothes Naoh's genital pain by applying a herbal poultice and giving him fellatio! So a bond of sorts is formed. The group encounters the Kzamm again but this time it's in the proximity of a herd of woolly mammoths (nicely dressed-up elephants). The cowardly Kzamm are frightened of the huge animals but Naoh shows no fear and gives one food. The Ulam men and Ika make their way through the herd and escape. Later at night, Amoukar attempts to have sex with Ika but she rejects him and moves closer to Naoh, who rapes her, doggy-style, in front of the two men to show his dominance.

The next day Ika discovers her tribe and beckons the three men to follow her. They can't understand her language though and need to get back to the Ulam. The next morning she's gone and Naoh is mysteriously upset. He leaves Amoukar and Gaw behind and tries to track her down, ending up the prisoner of the Ivaka after falling into quicksand. They laugh at and mock him, but eventually decide to use the powerful man as breeding stock and try to mate him with a chubby Ivaka woman. They show him how to make fire by twirling a stick into a piece of wood, and accept him as one of them, covering with their traditional body paint. Amoukar and Gaw are also trapped in the quicksand and mocked by the Cro-Magnons, including Naoh, who has learned how to laugh. Earlier in the film a rock drops on Gaw's head and Ika laughed uproariously, but the others have never laughed before. Eventually the captive Ulam escape and knock Naoh unconscious, to drag him away. Ika follows, being attached to the Ulam man.

The group of four then have to fight several renegade Ulam, who try to steal their fire. Gaw had been previously injured by a bear and was carried by Amoukar, but they defeat their enemies with spear-throwers supplied to them by the Ivaka. Resting in a cave, Naoh begins to have sex with Ika in the usual doggy-style but she shows him how to make love face-to-face and become more intimate. Sometime later Gaw is hit by yet another rock in the head and the whole group laughs. Eventually reunited with the Ulam, Ika shows them how to make fire the traditional Ivaka way, which is greeted with great jubilation. Ika is accepted into the tribe and we see that she is pregnant with Naoh's child, as he caresses her belly while they gaze at the full moon.

There's so much to like about this film. The performers bring their all to their roles, and we don't need to understand their guttural languages to understand their emotions and motivations. Ron Perlman particularly brings an ape-like quality to Amoukar, you can still see the simian instincts coming out now and then, especially when he's angry or sexually frustrated, poor guy! Rae Dawn Chong is a delight as the chattering Ika, both on the eyes as she's naked most of the time, and as the character as well. Without Ika there'd be no story as contact with her brings a new level of humanity to our rag-tag group of cavemen and nudges them to learn new things. She's a very cute person! Everett McGill as Naoh brings a bravery and nobility to his Neanderthal character, which I guess we and Ika are meant to respond to. Gaw is a lesser character, mainly to provide comic relief but it works this time, as laughter is an essential plot development. Scenically Quest for Fire is a gem, bursting with grand panoramas of countryside and forests. The music by Philippe Sarde is soaring and moving, complementing the various moods of the film with aplomb. The makeup effects, ranging from gored bodies and severed limbs to scarred apemen, saber-toothed tigers and mammoths, all work well, although the tribe of ape-like Waguba could probably have done with some more flexibility in their faces. A minor quibble.

It's nice to watch some key milestones happen for ancient humanity, such as laughter, fire and lovemaking. Whether any of it is historically accurate doesn't really matter, it's still an effective cinema experience, expertly directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. There is the theory that Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals interbred, and that's where we got our red hair from. So who knows? I just know there's a wealth of fine elements in this film to enjoy and being set so far back in the past, Quest for Fire isn't likely to date anytime soon!

© Boris Lugosi, 2010.

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