Released in America on February 12, 1982, director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire (1982) is an adventure film that is authentically epic in scale and attempts accuracy in the language and physical depictions of its cave-man protagonists.
Importantly, Quest for Fire isn’t historically inaccurate in a fashion that causes audience to laugh or wince. The cave-men here don’t hunt a woolly mammoth and then wander immediately into Giza and find the Great Pyramids under construction, as was the case in Roland Emmerich’s dreadful 10,000 BC (2008) for example.
Accordingly, critics approved of the Annaud initiative. Variety’s reviewer called Quest for Fire an “engaging prehistoric yarn that happily never degenerates into a club and lion skin spin-off of Star Wars and resolutely refuses to bludgeon the viewer with facile or gratuitous effects.”
In The New York Times, Janet Maslin concurred, terming the film “more than just a hugely enterprising science lesson, although it certainly is that. It’s also a touching, funny and suspenseful drama about pre-humans.”
In terms of theme, Quest for Fire — based on the novel by J.H. Rasny – offers a unique narrative and commentary about man’s unique capacity to evolve, to adapt to new technologies and developments in his always-difficult existence. It conveys that theme in the milieu of our prehistory, when life was nasty, brutish and short.
Set some “80,000 years ago,” this “science fantasy adventure” (as it was billed in the original theatrical trailer) specifically concerns the primitive Ulam tribe. Director Jean-Jacque Annaud’s observant camera introduces us to this Cro-Magnon clan and to the rhythms of the clan’s primitive daily life. These early scenes recall the opening of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), at least to some degree. As is the case in other Annaud films like The Bear (1988), it also feels like we’re watching a documentary for the first fifteen minutes or so. The realism factor is extremely high, thanks to the use of stunning natural locations in Kenya, Iceland, Scotland and Canada.
As a quasi-nature documentary, Quest for Fire is intense, revealing and involving. We see the tribes’ people sleep (together, in a large communal cave), share a meal, battle enemies, and mate. Finally, the Ulam tend to their fire and this last bit is especially significant because the Ulam lack the capacity to make fire for themselves. Accordingly, they have assigned a Fire Keeper or guardian to keep a small flame eternally lit.
The on-set of rain is thus a major crisis.
Fire is “the great mystery” according to the film’s opening card, and it is the one thing that keeps the tribe alive. It provides warmth; light, and the means to cook food. Without it, the Ulam would descend into darkness, cold and despair.
Yet, importantly, the Ulam don’t understand the fire they covet. It’s a thing to be captured, maintained and controlled.
Then, one day, the lurking Wagabu — a tribe of primitive homo erectus — launch a surprise attack upon the peaceful Ulam, and it’s like a Stone Age 9/11 or Pearl Harbor.
The sanctuary of the Ulam cave is breached. Men are killed in extremely violent and bloody fashion, and women are dragged away. And the sacred fire is nearly extinguished. The Fire Keeper manages to keep the flame lit for a short time, but soon it winks out, leaving the Ulam tribe — now reduced to wandering in a primordial, misty bog — little hope for continued survival.
The situation dire, three of the best warriors in the tribe, Naoh (Everett McGill), Amoukar (Ron Perlman) and Gaw (Nameer El-Kadi) are tasked with a seemingly-impossible mission: to find fire and bring it back to the tribe. The quest begins, and on this incredible odyssey across a wild landscape, the three men encounter sabre-toothed tigers (which chase them up a tree…), mastodons, and other terrors of the Paleolithic Age. Although the film’s subject matter is serious — the very survival of the tribe — Annaud incorporates wonder and humor into Quest for Fire’s tapestry as well.
Not to mention horror…
In the film’s most frightening scene, the Ulam triumvirate confronts the Kzamm, a neanderthal tribe of cannibals. Our heroes attempt to steal fire from these monstrous, hulking creatures, but it’s a botched attempt that is tense and frightening. Still, during the struggle, Naoh and the others manage to free the beautiful Ika (Rae Dawn Chong), a beautiful female of the advanced Ivaka tribe.
Adorned solely in body paint and otherwise totally nude, Ika is resourceful, bright and one of us…a homo sapien.
She introduces the Ulam warriors to the concept of laughter, not to mention the wonders of the missionary position. She soon becomes the team’s most valuable player. Soon, however, she grows homesick and decides to return to her tribe.
Heartbroken by her departure, a smitten Naoh follows Ika back to her people, and after a series of ritual humiliations (including public sex with a line-up of very obese women…), is introduced to a world of new technology and knowledge.
The Ivaka, you see, can make fire. It is an art they share with Naoh. Also, the Ivaka craft arrows, make pottery, and build free-standing shelters. It’s all a brave new world to Naoh. But after some time living happily among his new friends, Naoh is coerced by Amoukar and Gaw to return to their people Ika, who has fallen in love with Naoh, goes with them on the trip. In the end, Naoh vanquishes a rival in his clan, and Ika teaches the Ulam to make fire. No longer is fire “magic;” something beyond the grasp of their understanding. Now it is a tool, well-understood and successfully harnessed.
Quest for Fire’s final scene — a beautifully staged, evocative medium shot — reveals a pregnant Ika cradled tenderly in Naoh’s strong arms as the couple expectantly gazes skyward, bathed in dazzling moonlight. The implication is clear: the next generation will be one born with the knowledge to make fire, to build shelter, to carry light spears/arrows. Mankind has taken a big leap forward and we have witnessed the first steps of that journey. There is no turning back to the dark caves of ignorance…or at least there shouldn’t be.
Even today, 80,000 years later, the human animal gets a lot of things wrong, no question. We pollute our environment and we wage war. But Quest for Fire reminds the viewer that the human experience is always evolving; that a new technology will be invented or discovered, or that a new understanding of our universe will be reached. These things make our perpetual struggle for immortality that much closer to reality and our burdens that much lighter.
You can watch, in Quest for Fire, how Naoh integrates new weapons, new science and new beliefs into his primitive way of life…and is the better for it, for the pursuit of knowledge.
In just the span of this film, the dark, mysterious world of the Ulam becomes significantly brighter because of interaction with the Ivaka and their technology and know-how. This is nothing less than the story of the entire human experience: the great and unending quest to make our lives less uncomfortable; less difficult.
I don’t use the word “comfortable” lightly, by the way. I don’t mean that we’re lazy. I mean that the trajectory of human history is to make survival (and our children’s survival) less a risk and more a guarantee: with science, with technology, with knowledge, and hopefully with wisdom. And that’s why, frankly, it hurts me so much to see the anti-intellectual, anti-science proponents gaining so much traction in this country’s national discourse today. These are the folks who think we can pray away a drought in Texas. These are the people who think we should turn back the clock on science. If man had let such foolish irrationality win out in the prehistoric past….we never would have survived. We never would have learned to make fire. We would have died out in that murky swamp, waiting for the Man in the Moon to deliver us from evil.
The march of progress, however, isn’t always sublime or easy for everyone, as this film reminds us rather cleverly. The Fire Keeper in Quest for Fire, for instance, is out of a job in the Ulam Tribe once fire is understood, his skills no longer necessary
So his situation may be the first case of down-sizing in human history…
I also find it immensely interesting that in Quest for Fire it is a woman who brings civilization to Naoh’s people. She teaches Naoh how to make love and make fire. And, watching the final scenes of the film, one must countenance the idea that she also teaches him the critical (and in my experience, female…) quality of patience. Where – I wonder – would mankind be without womankind?
Visually arresting, and packed with gory, intense action sequences, Quest for Fire is a fascinating adventure that considers with great verisimilitude “what might have been” in our long ago past. The shots that book-end the film — nearly identical pans across a desolate dark valley lit by a single fire — serve to remind us how hard our long journey towards the light has been, and that mankind’s survival over the ages is not a miracle, not some gift from non-existent deities.
Rather, it is the result of our own resourcefulness and ingenuity in the face of an often harsh and difficult environment. The message: don’t praise some imaginary God, don’t praise fire. Or magic.
Instead, praise the human spirit. It got us here, and it will deliver us into a better future…if we don’t let the Neanderthals win.