Quest for Fire (1981, dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud)
Set approximately 80,000 years ago in the Paleolithic Era, Quest for Fire tells the story of the Ulam Tribe, early Homo Sapiens who struggle to master control of fire and improve their lives. Their camp is invaded by more primitive ape-like Wagabu and the Ulam’s flame is extinguished. Naoh (Everett McGill) is charged with finding fire somewhere in the world and bringing it back home. He’s accompanied by Amoukar (Ron Perlman wearing disturbingly little makeup to play primitive man) and Gaw (Nameer Al-Kadi). They cross treacherous mountains, confront ferocious saber-toothed tigers, combat the cannibalistic Kzamm tribe, and eventually encounter a group of humans who are progressing towards an advanced future.
Quest for Fire is a perfect production that exemplifies the artform of Film. That doesn’t mean it is without flaws from an entertainment point of view, but because it eschews traditional dialogue it lives up to that concept that film at its core is a visual medium. The story must be told through the images on the screen and told well, or the audience will have no idea what is happening. This depends on a very well written script, tight, precise editing, and actors who have the talent to convey emotion without words. That is a lot of possible room for error, yet Quest for Fire managed to keep my attention throughout, and I even felt invested in these characters and their journey.
It definitely helps that director Jean-Jacques Annaud was able to move his production across the globe and showcase beautiful vistas. The opening sequences were filmed in the forests of British Columbia and Ontario. Later parts of the movie were shot in Scotland and across Kenya. This variety of locales displaces the setting from any single recognizable place and slightly disorients us as much as the three protagonists we follow. The bleak opening sequence uses the hellish marsh the characters run through to significant advantage whereas the vast expansive plains of Kenya create a sense of openness and freedom in the film’s third act.
The acting is quite remarkable from this cast. The actors are able to convey a spectrum of emotion and even pull off wordless set pieces. The battle with the Kzamm is as exciting as most fight sequences, even with some physical comedy and horror elements. The most emotionally moving moment of the film is when Naoh is taught how to create fire without waiting for lightning to strike or having to steal it from others. The emotion that Everett McGill is able to put forth in this scene was amazing. You see not just his understanding of the creation of the element of fire but a growing humanist understanding. He shows you how beautiful the act of humanity ascending beyond the realm of animal was, how it must have been an explosion of consciousness.
Rae Dawn Chong portrays Ika, a member of the more advanced Ivaka and delivers a performance with energy and passion. Her character is an outsider in her own tribe and incredibly determined in seeing out this journey on her own terms. The bond she and Naoh form by the ending of the film feels very faithful to this time period and these characters and is another aspect that points us towards an enlightened future.
Quest for Fire will likely not appeal to every audience. Without dialogue, it demands attention on the part of the viewer to understand its story. If you are willing to invest that you will find it to be a very moving film that speaks to us now when the future doesn’t look so bright.