Quest for Fire (1981)


Director Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Bear, The Name of the Rose) takes us on a prehistoric adventure about three cave-dwelling early humans who embark on a search for fire after an attack by animalistic Neanderthals extinguishes the flame their tribe maintained for generations. Along the way, the three men encounter cannibals, sabre-tooth tigers, and wooly mammoths. They also meet a woman from another tribe who awakens passions within them, and whose people have the knowledge to create the life-giving flame they seek.

Quest for Fire features remarkable performances from Everett McGill (Twin Peaks), Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Nameer El-Kadi, and Rae Dawn Chong (The Color Purple). The actors had to learn a whole new primitive way of movement and a language created from scratch. There are no subtitles, but you don’t need them — the cast convey everything you need to know with their gestures and intonations.

To step this far back into history, a few grains of salt are required. Who’s to say when or how human-kind discovered the ability to make fire, or when we started nurturing romantic feelings for one another instead of merely banging away. The story ends up being a quest for love as well as fire, with McGill’s character bewildered by the feelings stirred in him by Chong. The ice age romance angle begets a few comedic moments in the movie, including when Chong teaches McGill a new sexual position. I can see how some might mock the movie’s incorporation of humor — but I think the funny moments are also the most human ones. When Perlman’s character sees Chong and McGill engaged in the new missionary position, he nudges El-Kadi’s character. Not interested in a gay tryst, El-Kadi hisses at Perlman and backs away.

Given the exotic shooting locations and subject matter, I expected Quest for Fire to be a more beautifully photographed and atmospheric. Annaud takes no liberties to romanticize. It’s still a remarkable film, though, for the intrinsic conceptual drama at its core, and especially for the performances. Philippe Sarde’s score is also a highlight.

Academy Award: Best Make-Up