Retro Review: Quest for Fire (1981).
This award-winning caveman quest muddles its prehistory in places but tells a grippingly plausible tale of early human survival.
I guess I’m doing one more caveman movie. We’ve covered the good, the bad, and the silly in this genre already. No accounting of cavemen movies would be complete, however, without talking about Quest for Fire. Jean-Jaques Annaud (The Name of the Rose, Enemy at the Gates) crafts the Ur paleolithic drama, a fictional imagining of early man that drew upon scholarship of the time. In retrospect, much of its science is muddled, but it still presents a coherent and engaging adventure.
Quest for Fire (1981)
A tribe of primitive cavemen live in the harsh climate of Europe, jealously guarding their prized possession: fire. They use it for heat, cooking, defense from predators and in fashioning their weapons. They cannot create it, merely guard the flame they have. When an attack by troglodytes extinguishes it, three warriors (Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, and Nameer El-Kadi) must venture forth to capture a new source of fire. Along the way they meet plenty of danger, as well as a mysterious tribe of advanced humans with knowledge of how to create what they seek.
A Taxonomy Interlude.
Promo material calls our protagonists Cro-Magnons. Nope, uh-uh. First, Cro-Magnon is a useless term in classifying hominids. Second, “Cro-Magnon Man” lived 20 thousand years ago, not the 80 thousand stated by the film’s introduction. Third, Cro-Magnons were anatomically modern humans; our three grunting adventurers are clearly more primitive. These bad boys are Neanderthals.
Neanderthals lived in Europe around the time posited, in caves, with limited control of fire as Quest depicts. Their stocky, heavy-browed, hairy and light-skinned appearance is consistent with the film’s protagonists. We see our boys chip stone tools and scrape hides for clothes, but not much else besides fire-hardening their spears; again, consistent with the archeology. We also see a contrasting tribe of more modern humans with thin physiques, nearly no body hair, jewelry, and advanced weapons that all mark them as early Homo Sapiens.
I bring all this up because while Quest for Fire may be using dated scientific knowledge, they do really smart things with it. The Neanderthals are portrayed as very monkey-like: El-Kadi’s smaller and nimbler character acts like a chimp while Ron Pearlman’s larger character uses great ape characteristics. It had to be intentional because it is so well choreographed, sophisticated, and performed. It’s no surprise the film turned to Desmond Morris, acclaimed author of The Naked Ape, for coaching the actors.
The early humans, in contrast, use more sophisticated body language and verbal communication. They move and act inspired by extant aboriginal humans. In the middle of it all is Everett McGill’s main character, Naoh, who is visually like the Neanderthals but readily assimilates the advanced human’s culture and technology. He even falls in love and pairs with Ika (Rae Dawn Chong) an outcast of the human tribe. Quest for fire may have been fumbling ideas of the missing link (scientifically dubious) while making a strong case for the cross-breeding of Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens in Europe (intriguingly prescient).
…Back to the Movie.
OK, science geek-out concluded. Quest for Fire may just miss technical accuracy, but it is very well made. At heart it is a heroic journey with four complex protagonists. The film uses a made-up language for most of the cast (written by A Clockwork Orange‘s scribe Anthony Burgess) while relying heavily on physical performances. On that front, the leads are fantastic. Ron Pearlman is particularly inspired in his performance, never dropping character and meticulously consistent with every tiny nuance of movement. Rae Dawn Chong is similarly delightful as a character with many tics and quirks that suddenly fall into place when you see that she’s from a more modern tribe.
The story moves briskly and covers many staples of the genre without feeling derivative. This is again due to the “always in character” ethos of the film. We see sabre-tooth cats, but instead of fighting them like an action movie would have done, our troop runs and climbs a tree, shouting down at the cats like chimpanzees. Nearly every encounter is like that: you get a situation you’ve seen in other caveman movies reinvented by the anthropological lens the film is dedicated to.
Certain aspects of Quest for Fire that haven’t aged well. The depiction of sex is pretty much of the rape variety. I can see why they show it that way: chimps are the model species and they tend to coerce sex in their male-dominated groups. Ika eventually shows Naoh that you can do sex without the dominating…still, people are probably not gonna enjoy seeing all the rape.
Animal cruelty is another big aspect that may put people off. Pearlman’s character throws a torch at wolves early on – and we see one of them actually on fire. The prosthetics for the sabre cats and mammoths are also problematic, as is a scene where Naoh manhandles actual vultures. I know films had different rules back then (it took a horse getting blown up with dynamite in 1980’s Heavens Gate for Hollywood to crack down) but its still unsettling to see so casually.
A Fine Quest.
Quest for Fire deserves its status as one of the best prehistoric films around. Its dedication to an anthropologically informed ethos causes some problems, but ultimately rewards audiences with a consistent and thoughtful creation. Annaud’s film fails to arrive at the level of a scientific survey of early hominids, but it is a well crafted, well-thought out and excellently portrayed adventure story.