Quest For Fire

cast: Ron Perlman, Everett McGill, Rae Dawn Chong, and Nicholas Kadi

director: Jean-Jacques Annaud

96 minutes (15) 1981
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Second Sight DVD Region 2 retail
[released 25 September]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont

It is perhaps unfortunate, given Jean-Jacques Annaud’s painstaking research and devotion to scientific accuracy, that Quest For Fire, his 1981 Oscar-winning examination of primitive man, is remembered less as an ode to humanity and more as the slightly silly caveman romp that discovered Ron Perlman.

The Ulam tribe are numerous and strong thanks to their possession of the gift of fire. However, one morning their life becomes infinitely more complicated when another tribe’s attack leaves many of them dead and their fire extinguished. Unable to light a fire themselves, they send off three hunters to find more fire and bring it back to the tribe. After blundering around the wilderness, they happen across a tribe of cannibals. Risking their lives they manage to steal some fire and liberate a female who turns out to come from a far more advanced tribe. By the time the hunters return home they not only have fire but something far more valuable; the gift of knowledge.

Due to its lack of dialogue, Quest For Fire doesn’t really function as a drama. While the film has character arcs, Annaud is clearly less interested in these characters as individuals than he is in their symbolic role as exemplars of the early human condition. This leaves the characters rather thin with the onus of the performance placed clearly on expressing the fact that despite being ultimately human, primitive men were really nothing more than animals. Indeed, it’s easy to see this film with the characters as little more than ballast as Annaud runs them through a series of set-pieces, each more unique and spectacular than the last seeing the film’s mood shift from primal terror to sentimentality to broad humour as incredibly graphic fight scenes give way to intimate scenes of lovemaking to people getting their genitals bitten in a fight.

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Indeed, the strength of the performances here is in their scientific veracity and the sheer physicality demanded of the actors as they take on board renowned primateologist Desmond Morris’ observations about primate gestures and grunt their way through ‘dialogue’ written by Anthony Burgess, who came up with the pidgin-Russian in A Clockwork Orange. Beautifully shot in Scotland, Kenya and Canada, Quest For Fire is a feast for the eyes – but great design, performances and direction give it real intellectual substance as, by sacrificing the chance to make a film about human characters, Annaud manages to make a film about the human story itself. Despite such rich intellectual credibility, the film is never ponderous or heavy going and that lightness of tone is perhaps why the film’s reputation and popularity has dimmed with age; its crime is not only being intelligent and rigorous, but it does so in a light-hearted and accessible manner.

The DVD also boasts extensive commentary tracks by the director and the cast and an interview with Annaud in which he tells a number of truly fantastic anecdotes about how difficult it is to shoot 14 mammoths charging down a hill and his commentary track is interesting too, if a little dry and perhaps redundant given the energy and the detail in the interview. Nonetheless, this is an excellent DVD and it’s a film that all true lovers of film need to see sooner or later.