Quest for Fire (1981) poster

Quest for Fire (1981)


France/Canada. 1981.


Director – Jean-Jacques Annaud, Screenplay – Gerard Brach, Based on the Novel by J.H. Rosny-Aine, Producers – Denis Heroux & John Kemeny, Photography – Claude Agostini, Music – Philippe Sarde, Special Effects – Martin Mallivoire, Makeup Effects – Michele Burke, John Caglione, Sarah Monzani & Chris Tucker, Production Design – Brian Morris. Production Company – ICC/Cine-Trail/Belstar/Stephan Films.


Everett McGill (Naoh), Rae Dawn Chong (Ika), Ron Perlman (Amoukar), Nameer El Kadi (Gaw)


80,000 years ago. The primitive Ulam tribe’s most precious possession, their fire, is accidentally put out during a clash with another tribe. Three men are chosen and sent on a quest to find a new source of fire. Their quest leads them to a series of discoveries that takes them up the ladder towards civilization and finally to the very secret of making fire itself.

This French-Canadian production was an impressive attempt at making a caveman movie the way it really was. Previously the caveman genre had been typified by the likes of One Million Years B.C. (1966), which featured the indelible image of Raquel Welch in a fur bikini combating dinosaurs, with the filmmakers seemingly oblivious to the anthropological incongruity of the two species being separated by several million years. Quest for Fire was a revisionist caveman film that for once and for all set out to lay these caveman-vs-dinosaur bashes to rest. (For a greater overview of the genre see Films Set in Prehistory).

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud made painstaking effort to depict pre-civilized life with a thorough authenticity. To this extent, Annaud recruited body language expert Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape (1967) and Manwatching (1977), to envision prehistoric body language, along with author Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange (1971), to come with a primitive tongue made up of grunts and groans.

This scrupulous effort at authenticity does leave Jean-Jacques Annaud with the difficult job of trying to tell an entire story without words or using any of the usual cheats and shortcuts that these prehistoric films do – like subtitling the grunts, adding narration or having the actors speak in English, something that took the conviction out of the similarly authenticity-minded prehistoric drama Clan of the Cave Bear (1986).

Ron Perlman, Everett McGill, Nameer El Kadi in Quest for Fire (1981)
Three caveman on a quest – (l to r) Ron Perlman, Everett McGill, Nameer El Kadi

However, Annaud succeeds to a surprising degree – Quest for Fire becomes a film where one is caught up in the opulence of the mime and the natural visual tapestry. There are some often delightful touches like where Jean-Jacques Annaud manages to deliver entire little stories, even jokes on the naiveté of his questors, visually without the use of words.

The film’s publicity campaign pretentiously compared Quest for Fire to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In some ways, Quest for Fire could almost be a feature length version of the Dawn of Man sequence from 2001, minus the monolith. Of all the 2001 copies that reached for banally grandiose places and fell short of achieving awe, Quest for Fire is one of the few of these that manages to pull it off.

The film constantly aches towards the monumental and transcendental – there is an undeniable religiosity to the scene where Everett McGill offers grass to the mammoth and a cinematographically stunning scene where Rae Dawn Chong shows how to create fire, which first flickers to life as a single tiny orange spark amid a giant blue frame and then blossoms to light the whole screen up with magnificent effect. The film is a triumph for cinematographer Claude Agostini who shoots beautiful rich ochre Kenyan, Scottish Highland and British Columbia landscapes in stunning natural light – almost every frame manages to look like an oil colour.

Rae Dawn Chong in Quest for Fire (1981)
Prehistoric love interest Rae Dawn Chong

Quest for Fire was the third film from French director Jean-Jacques Annaud. Annaud has since gone onto make the impressive and visually striking likes of The Name of the Rose (1986), The Bear (1989), The Lover (1992), Seven Years in Tibet (1997) and Enemy at the Gates (2001), which he usually films in exotic international and often arduous outdoors locations. Annaud was intriguingly announced as director of an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books during the 1990s, although this project has yet to emerge. Annaud returned to fantastic material with His Majesty Minor (2007), a strange tale about beast and humanity set during the era of Greek mythology.

Jean-Jacques Annaud cast relative unknowns in the parts. Of these, Rae Dawn Chong (daughter of Tommy Chong of Cheech and Chong fame) succeeds in giving a performance of sparklingly chirpy antediluvian delights despite being buried in a ton of makeup and dirt. She went onto a modest acting career. The most well known of the unknowns has been Ron Perlman, who became the leonine lead in tv’s Beauty and the Beast (1987-91) and various film parts, and who made his screen debut here. Everett McGill has maintained a minor acting career in various action parts and in a number of David Lynch works, most notably an ongoing role in the tv series Twin Peaks (1990-1) and as the sinister step-parent in Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1991).

Trailer here

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