'Quest for Fire' Film Review: A Prehistorical Masterpiece

Written by Robert Savage.

On the face of it, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire should not be a fantastic film. It is a film which was made in 1981 and set in the Stone Age. The 1980s were not a time where spectacular special effects could be used to emphasise the reality of living conditions in the Stone Age. It is a philosophical film in a genre that had been dominated by films such as One Million Years B.C. which was essentially a prehistorical Baywatch. There is no recognizable dialogue, and scientists have questioned its accuracy. Yet somehow this is a highly watchable film that tells a poetic tale of human evolution and human pitfalls.

Rae Dawn Chong as Ika

SOURCE: https://www.thatmomentin.com/the-discovery-of-love-in-the-caveman-drama-quest-for-fire/ by David Duprey

The film is helped by the simple plot. It is literally a quest for fire. The caveman protagonists are left without it after they are attacked by less evolved humanoids called Wagabus. The premise of the film revolves around three of the cavemen going out to find fire because their Neanderthal tribe are unable to build one. This allows the film to delve into the struggles of living in prehistorical times. The protagonists are constantly under threat from outside enemies as well as their own stupidity. The plot becomes interesting because it puts the protagonists into unknown and dangerous scenarios which the director weaves into his larger narrative of human evolution and overcoming. The film is an adaptation of the 1911 Belgian novel by J.-H. Rosny so in a way the film is an evolution of a previous story itself.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud SOURCE: IMDB

It must be said that the organisation of the film by director Jean-Jacques Annaud was vital considering the scope of the story. Annaud is no mug. He won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film five years before Quest for Fire with the film Black and White in Color. Afterwards he was approached by all kinds of people to direct the next big Hollywood blockbuster. So, when he said he wanted to film cavemen speaking a made-up language and searching for fire there was much confusion. Annaud stuck to his own artistic vision, allowing for an authentic film that he could mold completely. The behind the scenes tapes illustrate that Annaud was obsessed with each minor detail in the film. It is this effort that makes the film feel truly immersive.

Annaud’s dedication is clear from the areas he filmed in. Quest for Fire was filmed in Scotland, Iceland, Kenya, and Canada whereas prehistorical films now generally rely on computer generated images. Annaud was not willing to cut corners in his desire for accuracy. Behind the scenes videos show how the actors worked for several hours bare foot. This caused obvious difficulties as they filmed in some of the coldest and hottest conditions on Earth. In Kenya, the actors complained of blisters on their feet because the ground was so hot. This really adds to the authenticity of the characters’ struggles because the actors were feeling what actual cavemen would have gone through. The filming locations were ideal because they were around mountainous and naturally beautiful areas. Annaud could rely on panning the camera in his locations.

This simple footage is still stunningly breathtaking and represents the vastness of the Earth to the sheltered protagonists.

The elephant in the room or perhaps the mammoth in the room is the lack of understandable dialogue. This will turn some people off because they are unwilling to accept a slower paced or potentially confusing plot. However, the made-up language used in Quest for Fire is quite cool as it was created by novelist Anthony Burgess. He had already created the Nadsat language in his novel A Clockwork Orange, so he knew how to make the cavemen sound somewhat realistic. Moreover, the most advanced tribe in the film do use a real-life language from modern tribes in northern Canada. Though the language aids the realism of the film, it is also hilarious to watch these confused cavemen try to interact through mere grunts and gestures. This is especially true for the most advanced tribe because they use real-life language that has no significance to the plot.

It is important to note that Annaud does not seek to paint a pure picture of life in prehistorical times. Some of the scenes are scientifically and historically ludicrous. For example, there are four different tribes that appear, and they all have different levels of knowledge. It is incredibly unlikely that there would have been so many tribes at different stages of evolution in close proximity. Annaud does not set it at a specific time because that it not the point. He was seeking a wider study of how humans learnt new technologies and the visceral emotions behind humanity’s attempts to survive.

Unlike other prehistorical films, Annaud consulted with anthropologists such as Desmond Morris to portray accurate gestures and movements on screen. It may not be completely accurate, but it certainly opens the mind and makes one want to do further research on how our ancestors lived.

The three main protagonists throughout the film

SOURCE: Spiral Dynamics Integral http://spiraldynamicsintegral.nl/en/portfolio-items/quest-for-fire/

For me, the best element of this film is its ability to keep you hooked on the action. The picture is Rated R. They were pulling no punches when it came to displaying the outright brutality of early human life. The first battle scene portrays the anarchy of the Stone Age as the two tribes scrap and then wolves get involved to pick off the stragglers. Again, unlike previous prehistorical films there is little attempt to portray the humans on a par with vicious predators. When the protagonists run into a sabre tooth tiger, the actors depict the genuine fear that an early humanoid would have felt. Similarly, the scene where the caveman learns how to make fire from another tribe is one of the best scenes put to film. The film does not need to rely on cheap tricks or over the top fights to maintain the audience’s attention.

This is partially down to the actors. Everett McGill is particularly solid in the fire scene where he successfully captures his character’s astonishment, fear, and overwhelming joy for his tribe. Rae Dawn Chong plays the main female character Ika. She shows how humans would probably be doomed without females and provides a welcome break from the dramatic grunts and warmongering of the male characters. It is easier to relate to Ika as she is probably the most human of all the characters. This was also Ron Pearlman’s first film before he went on to star in Hellboy. Though he did not have to do much with his acting or his looks to fit in with the period. All the actors prevent this film from becoming too serious. There are strong elements of humour throughout which the actors do well to pull off considering the seriousness of the plot.

The trailer for this movie compares it to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is not quite that good, but it exceeds the expectation you have going into the film. It was a surprise success when it first came out, succeeding at the box office and winning an Oscar for Best Makeup. Some of it feels dated, but the lack of technology and the rawness of the footage are positives overall. It is worth watching due to its relatively short run time which goes by quickly due to the superb pacing. Other than 2001: A Space Odyssey, this is the movie I would recommend if you are looking for a serious prehistorical drama.


Written by Robert Savage.

Robert Savage is a history graduate from the University of Kent, living in the fine city of Norwich. Once described by a friend as a ‘speed obsessed freak who likes cheese’. He enjoys travel, motorsports, writing, and films.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.

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