Quest for Fire
By Emily Rouse
Quest for Fire, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and released in 1981, is a fantasy or science fiction film based loosely on the many struggles faced by early man. Quest for Fire, although not always historically or even scientifically accurate, very well represents the ways Neolithic people lived their lives. Bending to the whims and dangers of the elements in uncontrolled and unpredictable surroundings, they survived each day against unbelievable odds. For many viewers, Quest for Fire portrays the hardships and necessary actions needed by early man better than a seemingly more accurate, factually based documentary that one might find on the History or Discovery Channel. This, as well as other reasons, makes the film worth watching and useful, for an important film that anyone, from a historical scholar to a high school student.
The film begins with a tribe of young Neanderthals grouped together in a cave for shelter. (The average age of death in Neolithic times, although currently going through extensive reinvestigation, is estimated to be 30-35 years.) Multiple large fires placed inside and outside provide warmth, protection, food, and storage for many other important resources they need for survival. The need for the fire they have is evident in a multitude of ways in this first scene: all sleeping members of the tribe are huddled as closely as they can be around the fire for warmth. A pack of wolves attack is easily fought off with the use of the flames. A later attack by another tribe provokes a very bloody and very simply fought battle. Several men and women from both tribes are killed, and the carefully nurtured fire is destroyed.
This is where the real conflict of the story begins. Without the knowledge of how to start a new fire, three men are chosen to head out into the harsh elements on a quest for fire. They have basically nothing but some rudimentary weapons and the furs on their backs. The challenges that the men face range from encounters with saber-toothed tigers to extreme cold to clashes with other tribes. Along their trek across the harsh landscape, the men encounter a woman named Ika (wonderfully played Rae Dawn Chong). Ika seems to possess Cro-Magnon like skills and knows how to start fires from scratch. After many struggles, eventually Ika returns with them to her home and introduces the men to new tribal skills including growing crops and village living.
The film, while seemingly simple, considering that the only dialogue is apparently incoherent grunts and howls, was remarkably good. Indeed, a whole language is created, and by the end of the film is understood by audiences. For such an unusual topic, Quest For Fire received very positive reviews from critics and won nine film awards including an Academy Award, as well as five Genie Awards, a BAFTA salute, and two Cesars including one for best film.
The animalistic nature of early man in the time period from 40,000-30,000 BC is so well portrayed by the actors as well as the director of the film that the movie, in scenes it seems more like The Three Stooges. The line between dangerous adventure and slapstick comedy often becomes blurred, as in the line: “You’ll laugh about this someday.” Fortunately, this is done with subtle handling.
Renowned film critic Roger Ebert stated, “There are basically two ways to regard Quest For Fire. The movie is either (a) the moving story of how scattered tribes of very early men developed some of the traits that made them human,” or (b) “a laughable caveman picture in which a lot of lantern-jawed actors jump around in animal skins, snarling and swinging clubs at one another.”
The three main characters are played by Ron Perlman, Nicholas Kadi, and Everett McGill who are sterling in their characters. The make-up in the film was well done and won several awards. The Neanderthal men all looked very realistic and believable. Created in the early 1980's, the film inevitably uses special effects which seem tame, even creaky when compared to recent technological advances in special movie effects. For example, at one point in the film, the main characters interact with a herd of wild mammoths that look more like Mr. Snuffleupagus from the well-known children's show Sesame Street. This however is not a crucial problem throughout and does not take too much away from the film's overall strong quality.
While scientists and historians rightly criticized the film, neither exact science nor educational history plays an active or important role in the film. A major example of legitimate concern is that multiple human groups were existent at the same time covered in the film and at differing evolutionary stages of development, but the film does not pretend to be a documentary. The story line could be taken by some viewers as symbolic metaphors. The group in the cave appears to be Neanderthal men. While Ika seemingly reflects the entry of more advanced groups such as Cro-Magnon tribes, the story, as often with film fiction, allows supplemental and some enriching modern interpretations. Overall, the film for popular viewing is rightly renowned as a bold and revolutionary visual way of characterizing early man and even encourages a more comprehensive and detailed exploration for viewers.
Despite a lack of total historical accuracy, a lot can be learned about early man's way of life in Quest For Fire. As previously stated, the three men in the film are faced with an abundance of spontaneous challenges and threats along their journey. For example, at one point early on in the film the three are chased and hunted down by two large saber-toothed tigers and forced to take cover in a small tree for multiple days with nothing to eat but leaves. The fact that the men are forced to embark on this journey at all is an unexpected challenge in itself. The tribe would have been relatively fine had the other group not attacked them and destroyed their unique source of well-being in the first place.
This is an excellent beginning for Quest For Fire and allows a treacherous, dangerous, and unexpected journey for three average men in the late Paleolithic/early Neolithic era. For thousands of years, humans had no fixed homes and they followed animal migrations as nomads. They wore little clothing except that made entirely out of animal fur and hides and had very few possessions other than simple weaponry and tools made from sticks and rocks. They led dangerous and constantly challenging lives, but they were still capable of compassionate feelings. At the excavations of Shanidar Cave in Iraq in 1957-1961, for example, the skeleton nicknamed Nandi, by modern standards the equivalent of age eighty, showed a lifetime of care. Nandi’s remains revealed numerous fractures, the loss of an eye, an amputation, partial paralysis, and arthritic joints. Obviously, some cave dwellers were care givers as well. The end of the film focuses upon the relationship between the main character and a pregnant woman, Ika, who was not only an African woman but also a natural leader.
The different stages of development of man shown in the film explain why the film is considered by purists as historically inaccurate, yet, is often a good representation of the steps necessary for early man to advance. Ika’s people, for example, were clearly more advanced and structured than the tribe seen at the beginning of the movie. Her people had more innovative weapons and easily captured the three males when they wandered into Ika’s tribal community. They live in semi-permanent settlements in huts and adobe buildings and enjoy the use of pottery. They also seem to have some concept of agriculture since they live in permanent homes.
They had the invention of music and dance and a more distinct dialect or language between the members of the tribe. They also most likely had established laws and ways of punishment. This tribe is visually contrasted with the tribe at the beginning of the film who were themselves even more advanced than the tribe who attacked them. These harsh contrasts are a strong part of why Quest For Fire is considered such a well-made film and is held in high repute.
When first starting to watch this film, I expected not to enjoy it in the least. The grunting dialogue and the poor, early tribal effects were enough to turn me off in the first few minutes as it did many squeamish viewers. By the end, the uniqueness of the film alone was enough to change my mind completely. While I never came to find the grunts endearing, the rest of the movie was well constructed by portraying the struggles of early man considerably better than any film I had seen prior. I thought that the few negative reviews that I read of this film were often far too nitpicky and focused too heavily on trivial matters rather than seeing the film as a unique, creative work, completely separate from similar films or documentaries based entirely on factual artifacts and events in prehistory. I also found that the actors and actresses did a phenomenal job at their performances. At no point in the film did I see the characters as actors; rather they quickly became the early men and women that they portrayed facing harrowing conditions. Quest for Fire was an enjoyable film, wonderfully produced, and gave me a new perspective on early man's struggle to endure and flourish. It is the best representation I have seen to date. Despite the few flaws, this movie portrayed the ways these men and women were forced to go against harsh nature, hungry beasts, and against all odds, merely to survive. Quest For Fire also received a multitude of wonderful reviews that only support the fact that the film is worthwhile. Simply put, this is a quality movie that gives viewers a fresh perspective on early man’s simple life.