Quest for Fire (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1981)

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Oscar-winning* director Jean-Jacques Annaud transports audiences 80,000 years straight back in time to the last Ice Age with this accomplished prehistoric spectacle. Three Neanderthal men (Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, Nicholas Kadi) go on an epic journey of survival to bring fire back to their tribe, encountering along the way savage predators, dangerous cannibals, and a mysterious woman unlike any they have seen before (Rae Dawn Chong). Shot on location in Scotland, Iceland, Canada, and Kenya, this award-winning drama of early man’s survival is a singular cinematic experience and “a first-rate, compelling film about the dawn of man” (Video & DVD Guide).

* 1977: Best Foreign Language Film, Black and White in Color, Jean-Jacques Annaud

Special Features:

  • NEW Hi-Def Transfer From The Negative, Scanned At 4K And Supervised By Director Jean-Jacques Annaud
  • NEW Interviews With Director Jean-Jacques Annaud And Actors Ron Perlman, Everett McGill, Nicholas Kadi And Rae Dawn Chong
  • Audio Commentaries With Director Jean-Jacques Annaud
  • Audio Commentary With Producer Michael Gruskoff and Actors Ron Perlman and Rae Dawn Chong
  • The Quest for Fire Adventure – TV Featurette With Orson Welles
  • 15 Video Galleries With Director’s Commentary
  • Interview With Director Jean-Jacques Annaud
  • Backstage of Quest for Fire, a featurette for French television by Michel Parbot
  • Trailers and TV Spots

quest-for-fire-quote-posterAs a child wandering video stores in the 1980s, few VHS box covers continually fascinated me like the “Science Fantasy Adventure” Quest for Fire (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1981). My parents never rented it, which always struck me as somewhat odd given how unusual and intriguing it looked – four prehistoric cave people pose enrobed in the deep black shadows they stand within, one holding aloft a glowing lantern that radiates beams of light. Somehow, I understood that the film was a direct representation of its title – cavemen searching for fire – and that there was no intervention of the contemporary world into Quest for Fire – no narration or description, just grunting and bellowing and hooting. It seemed bizarre that such a film existed, yet it tantalized in the sense that a movie could literally be about anything, such was the magic of cinema.

Quest for Fire is no less dumbfounding when finally seen as an adult. In his review, Roger Ebert notes the initial tension faced by viewers – how to suspend the disbelief of the film’s obvious absurdity (where professional actors hoot and holler, scratch and stare, from beneath their frizzy hair, dirty animal skins, prosthetic brows, and jutting jaws) and accept the primitive drama presented. Annaud offers no easy assistance as Quest for Fire contains no recognizable language (just a general babbling invented for the film) and no contextualizing narration. It proceeds like a nature documentary filmed 150,000 years ago without the obligatory narration of Richard Attenborough, Marlin Perkins, or Lorne Greene. Gradually, the performances merge into the beautifully shot landscapes and the expectations for something comfortably orienting falls away, leaving an unusual, ethnographic fiction.

guerre-de-feu-1Lacking any accessible language, summaries of the film become unfortunately misleading. Names used in descriptions of Quest for Fire rely on those identified in the movie’s closing credits, however the film proceeds without any such names being understood. It is a significant detail because while the convenience of names is important to discussions of the film’s story, the plot of Quest for Fire unfolds within a natural world where language is primitive and remote at a minimum. As such, the movie’s principal figures, a trio of Neanderthals, do not really stand at arm’s length from the fauna and flora they encounter, and the presence of other, even more primitive hominins further situate the human and human-like species in Quest for Fire within a spectrum of life rather than above it.

Quest for Fire concerns the Ulam tribe of Neanderthals who are attacked and forced from their caves by the Wagabu, a group of hairy, ape-like hominins (very reminiscent to the prehistoric men at the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) and adding to the easy connection made between the two films). The Ulam are unable to create fire and so they preserve their source flame in a crude fire-cage, however that flame is extinguished during their flight from the Wagabu. Naoh (Everett McGill) is sent with Amoukar (Ron Perlman, in his first film role – “When the producer saw my forehead, he gave me the job on the spot.”) and Gaw (Nicholas Kadi, billed as Nameer El-Kadi) on a literal quest for fire, to find or steal a flame and return it to the struggling Ulam. During their voyage, they encounter saber-toothed cats and woolly mammoths, steal fire from the cannibalistic Kzamm tribe, are joined the more civilized Ika (Rae Dawn Chong, daughter of Tommy Chong), escape her more civilized tribe, the Ivaka, after witnessing how they make fire for themselves, and then return home, besting rivals in the Ulam along the way with superior weaponry stolen from the Ivaka.

Annaud and frequent Polanski screenwriter Gérard Brach adapted Quest for Fire from the 1911 source novel by J.-H. Rosny (pen name of brothers Joseph Henri Honoré Boex and Séraphin Justin François Boex) and construct an anthropological document steeped in Palaeolithic realism. Extensively researched, Quest for Fire takes great care in producing a realistic depiction of primitive man. British zoologist Desmond Morris consulted on the physical behaviour and gestures of its actors, while author and linguist Anthony Burgess developed the jabbering language of the film from Cree and Inuit vocabularies. And while further research has since suggested that the movie’s setting 80,000 years ago may be understated, science has revealed Quest for Fire to be presciently accurate in a variety of other ways, such as by the racial indeterminacy of Ika or the red-hair of some Ulam tribe members.

Amid Quest for Fire‘s ambitious veracity is a highly allegorical tale of our species’ advancement, of mankind’s discovery of its identity in a single, epic adventure. Annaud’s film presents a series of small and large moments that reflect humanity’s social and technological progress. Quest for Fire commences with an essential distinction between the cave men and the other animals of the natural world when Amoukar uses fire to ward of a pack of wolves and demonstrates an understanding of the element as a tool to be employed rather than feared. From there, this trio of Ulam voyagers embark on a quest that goes far beyond merely finding a replacement flame. When they defend themselves with the atlatl, it is the first step to security in defence and resources. When Naoh successfully offers a fistful of grass to a woolly mammoth, it is, for the Ulam, the first glimmer of agriculture and animal husbandry. When Ika laughs at a rock striking Amoukar on the head, it is the spark of storytelling, drama, and entertainment. When Ika introduces Naoh to the missionary position and face-to-face lovemaking, it transforms copulation into love and companionship. It is here that Annaud’s Quest for Fire becomes truly Promethean, moving beyond the mere acquisition of fire and into something mythic.

quest-for-fire-blue-posterQuest for Fire was a significant commercial success and something of a critical darling in its time, winning an Oscar and a BAFTA for make-up, claiming seven Genie award nominations and winning five, and garnering six César nominations and winning for Best Film and Director. Still, Quest for Fire seems a suitable candidate for a Shout Select title less for its artistic ambitions and more for its place as a unique ’80s outlier featuring a contemporary star in Perlman, just the kind of movie that the label seems trained on celebrating. And with no high-definition edition available to North American home viewers, a Blu-ray edition of Annuad’s movie by Shout Select would fill a gap in the prehistoric “science fantasy adventure” subgenre.

Credits: This proposed edition ports over the various excellent special features available on Quest for Fire‘s DVD and Blu-ray editions. Annaud, in particular, provides insightful and candid views of the film’s production and of its intentions and artistic choices. We’ve also imagined a new scan of the film and a new set of interviews with the movie’s principals. For more on Ron Perlman’s entertaining take on the experience of making Quest for Fire and the challenges that followed, go to Perlman Pages to read a compilation of his comments and interviews on the subject.

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