HCF REWIND NO. 138: QUEST FOR FIRE AKA LA GUERRE DU FEU [France/Canada, 1981]
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD: 5th August
RUNNING TIME: 96 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
The Ulam tribe are early humans who who possess fire in the form of a carefully guarded small flame which they use to start larger bonfires. Obtained from a natural source, the flame is kept in a makeshift bone satchel and must be fed constantly to keep it alive because the Ulam don’t know how to start a fire. Driven out of their home after a bloody battle with the apelike Wagabu, some Ulam survive to escape but are chased into a marsh by a pack of wolves. The Ulam’s fire tender escapes with the tribe’s remaining fire; however, while crossing a marsh, he all but douses the embers, leaving the tribe doomed to die from exposure and starvation. The Ulam elder decides to send three men on a quest to find fire….
There haven’t been very many films about primitive man, or at least films which have reached a wide audience [one day I might rave on this site about Ten Canoes and even defend The Clan Of The Cave Bear, but that is, as they say, for another day]. I reckon most people, on thinking of cinematic descriptions of our distant ancestors, would either think of the very disappointing 10 000 BC from a few years back, the Dawn Of Man section from 2001: A Space Odyssey or Rachel Welch being carried off by a Pteranodon in One Million Years B.C. In 1981, two very different caveman pictures were released to cinemas which found decent audiences and are still sometimes mentioned today. One was Caveman, a wonderfully stupid comedy where Dennis Quaid pees ice and a dinosaur gets stoned when eating a plant. The other, and much better known, was the French-Canadian production Quest For Fire, a film I never got around to seeing, yet a film which, as I watched it, I realised has actually seeped into popular culture quite a bit, from Family Guy to an Iron Maiden song. There’s even a Jackie Chan film, Operation Condor: Armour Of God 2, where Chan is chased by people looking just like one of the tribes in Quest For Fire [the masks look exactly the same].
It was directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, a filmmaker who, from Enemy At The Gates to Two Brothers, has a knack for immersing the viewer in an environment with a feeling of great realism while still making something that is great to look at. One day I’ll write for this website a review of his hugely underrated 1986 film The Name Of The Rose, a great picture which is worth ten Da Vinci Codes. Quest For Fire was an adaptation of a 1911 novel, and actually certain details can be found to be inaccurate if you’re so inclined. The important thing was that the movie gave the impression of realism, and for that effect Annaud got Anthony Burgess [no stranger at this sort of thing, as fans of A Clockwork Orange will know] to create the language of the Ulam, who are what we now call Neanderthal Man, and zoologist Desmond Morris to create their body languages and gestures. The more advanced Ivaka actually speak Cree Indian, though Crees viewing the film apparently found it both amusing and confusing to watch a film where some of the characters were saying things which made no sense in the context of what was going on. The film was apparently hell to make, with cast members having to endure five hour make-up sessions every morning, ran barefoot through forests and over volcanic rocks, trudge through near-freezing lakes with leeches, and fight real animals. But it was worth it.
Quest For Fire should immediate immerse the viewer in its world, or at least a viewer who doesn’t need everything simplified. I reckon that this film would have trouble getting a decent release in US and UK cinemas if it were made today, or at least in its original form. I can imagine studio executives fretting about the fact that nobody speaks English, or that the Ulam male’s way of choosing a mate is to grab the nearest female and insert himself into her whether she likes it or not, or whether a narration should be put in to make it clearer what was going on. Quest For Fire seems to have had no studio interference whatsoever [though the director’s first cut was four hours long and if it’s ever released I want to see it] and is so much the better for it. Though it does turn into a somewhat familiar quest story, it mostly refuses to compromise. Despite this, what I expected to be a fascinating but somewhat cold and distant viewing experience became more and more immersive. Small factual mistakes aside, I felt I really was in the world of the very first humans.
The intelligence of this film is clear from the first few minutes, when we first meet the Ulams. It almost feels like a documentary as the camera observes these creatures, one third ape, two thirds man, in their everyday existence, and it’s a dirty and rough one. Then suddenly they are attacked by Wagabu. They are more two thirds ape, one third man, and cannibals into the bargain. The ensuring battle is pretty brutal with some gruesome details as a spear going through a mouth and hands and heads bashed in with rocks. The UK cinema release was cut slightly to get an ‘AA’ [equivalent to the ‘15’ we have now] rating, and slightly more to retain the rating on video, mostly losing a rape which was probably considered problematic because one of the heroes commits the act and the victim seems pleased after it has occurred, though the scene perfectly illustrates how different values are in the world of the film, or at least amongst the Ulams. The rapist has no idea he’s doing something wrong, because that’s how mating happens in his tribe. The victim comes from a tribe which is more advanced and civilised and probably realises her attacker doesn’t mean to do wrong. Throughout, Quest For Fire is bloody and sexually frank, but not in a gratuitous way, while technically it holds up except for the masks of the Wagabu, which don’t look very flexible. Today, the scenes of fire and the mastodons, which are elephants with lots of hair on, would probably be accomplished with CGI, but I doubt would look as good.
The three main characters are constantly filmed being dwarved by the rugged [this film was filmed in Canada, Iceland, Kenya and Scotland] locations lensed evocatively by cinematographer Claude Agostini as they proceed on their quest. There is a great deal of action, not just involving humans/ near-humans, and even some humour. At one point the three are so scared by two lions that they spend two days and one night up a tree [I guess relieving themselves wasn’t a problem] until a branch one is on falls to the ground. One of the themes of the film is learning. We see the evolving of language, the birth of humour, compassion, the missionary position, and others. A romantic element is somewhat forced and it’s silly that all this development happens so quickly. There is something life-affirming though in seeing traits which seem second-nature to us being virtually born on screen. The actors, who include Ron Perlman in his first ever role and a sadly unrecognisable, though usually naked, Rae Dawn Chong, play their parts with such eloquence that after a while I didn’t miss hearing the English language one bit. Everett McGill has a fantastic moment when he witnesses the creation of fire. The look of awe on his face belongs in a Steven Spielberg film.
The proceedings are enhanced immensely by the diverse music score by Philip Sarde, which often cleverly conveys primitivism with very complex orchestral writing. The almost religious-sounding chorale cues for the scenes involving fire are especially effective in invoking the emotions of the characters who are witnessing what is basically their god. Quest For Fire has its aspects which feel contrived but they mostly feel that way as I write this review, not during the actual film. Unusual yet still entertaining and never dull, it’s quite a unique experience, raw and savage, but captivating and oddly uplifting.
Second Sight’s new Blu-Ray and DVD includes:
* Director’s commentary
*Commentary with actors Ron Perlman,Rae Dawn Chong and Michael Gruskoff
*The Making of Quest For Fire
*Interview with director Jean-Jacques Annaud