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New Adventures in Prehistory: In praise of Quest for Fire

This is a guest essay from David Turpin. Read his previous contributions here.

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Quest for Fire

This September, the IFI will hold a special 70mm screening of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire, in partnership with Temple Bar Gallery + Studios, offering a rare opportunity to see a true one-off on the big screen.  Described as a “science fantasy adventure”, Quest for Fire involves a trio of early homo sapiens, Naoh, Amoukar and Gaw (incorrectly identified in many reviews as Neanderthals), who are faced with the task of finding fire after their tribe loses its flame.  Aware of how to preserve fire but not how to generate it, the group undertakes an arduous series of adventures, eventually coming into contact with a smaller but more sophisticated homo sapiens woman, Ika (played by an immensely appealing Rae Dawn Chong), whose eventual partnership with Naoh symbolically heralds the transition of homo sapiens from an “animal” to a “human” state.

Nowadays, Quest for Fire is occasionally referred to as a “curio” or a “cult film”.  It is neither.  In fact, the film was released to much hoopla, and grossed a then-enormous $70 million in U.S. cinemas alone.  It’s easy to see how it caught the public’s imagination.  The story of its making alone – which spanned four years and three continents – is almost as engaging as its narrative.  Equally striking is the group of collaborators Annaud assembled, beginning with scriptwriter Gérard Brach, a frequent Polanski collaborator, whose influence may be felt in the faint but delightful seam of absurdist humour running through the film.  Quest for Fire also famously incorporates specially conceived “primitive” languages and gestures conceived by Anthony Burgess and Desmond Morris, respectively, with much of the discussion around the film consequently orbiting around the verisimilitude with which it does (or does not) present the lives of our distant ancestors.  While the film’s recreation of a world 80,000 years past is undeniably fascinating, its metaphorical richness is just as compelling, as it ultimately offers an extremely moving portrait of the human capacity for change and for improvement – a salutary lesson now as then.

Quest for Fire is based on a novel, La Guerre du feu, first published in 1911 under the pen-name J.-H. Rosny.  “Rosny” was in fact two people, the Belgian brothers Joseph Henri Honoré Boex and Séraphin Justin François Boex, whose collaborative work dealt extensively with natural, prehistoric and fantasy subjects, and played a pivotal role in the development of the science fiction genre.  The brothers’ collaboration ended in 1909, although it wasn’t until some time later that La Guerre du feu was fully acknowledged as the work of the elder Boex, now known as J.-H. Rosny aîné.  Although Rosny aîné’s novel had sold over three million copies by the time Annaud’s film was released, it is now out of print, popular interest in the travails of cavemen having been absorbed almost entirely by Jean M. Auel’s series of Earth’s Children potboilers.  Auel’s first Earth’s Children novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear had been a bestseller in 1980, and offers further evidence of an unusual appetite for prehistoric fantasy around the period, which was further sated not only by Quest for Fire but also by the rather more lowbrow Ringo Starr vehicle Caveman (1981).  There’s little similarity between Auel’s book and Rosny aîné’s though, just as there is little similarity between Annaud’s film and the disastrous Clan of the Cave Bear adaptation released in 1986.  Furthermore, while Annaud’s film hews roughly to the plot of Rosny aîné’s slim novel, it has a scope and depth that marks it as something quite different from its notional source.

In many ways, the novel with which Quest for Fire has the most interesting relationship is William Golding’s 1955 book The Inheritors.  Golding’s second novel, after The Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors inhabits the perspective of a group of gentle Neanderthals who are gradually supplanted by cruel homo-sapiens.  Written with an extraordinary sensitivity to the condition of a species that, as drawn by Golding, can observe the world in minute detail while lacking the power to interpret it, The Inheritors ultimately shares a bleak message with The Lord of the Flies.  In both novels, the nature of humanity (as embodied by the stranded schoolboys in The Lord of the Flies and the homo sapiens of The Inheritors) asserts itself as the capacity for evil.  As Golding’s Neanderthals survey the devastation wrought by homo sapiens, who can stockpile resources and therefore kill everything pre-emptively, they remark that “they are like a winter”, and for Golding the triumph of the malevolent homo sapiens from whom we descend represents a kind of fall from Paradise into hell.  As such, The Inheritors prefigures the “humanity as plague” idea that would later by popularised by, for instance, John Gray’s Straw Dogs (2003).

Annaud’s film also concerns itself with a period of transition, but it offers an upbeat corollary to Golding’s tragic vision.  In Quest for Fire, homo sapiens are once again separated from Neanderthals by their ability to manipulate and interpret the world, but this ability is shown to be a positive one when correctly applied.  It is significant that the central goal of this “quest” is attained not through active intervention, but through observation, as our heroes watch Ika make fire using sticks.  The film, then, can be seen as a celebration of the human capacity to learn, even if education can often be a humbling experience – as it is for Naoh, Amoukar and Gaw – because it involves admitting that, in our current state, we are not masters of all we survey.  There is something extraordinarily moving about this pivotal scene, in which the vast scope of the film narrows to Ika’s simple action of igniting a stick – a small process that overturns the protagonists’ entire sense of the world and their place in it.

It’s significant that the “lesson” these alpha males must learn comes from a woman, and Quest for Fire – perhaps unexpectedly – has a number of interesting things to say about gender and sexuality.  One of the lamentable stock responses to the film is tittering at its frank depiction of prehistoric sex, most specifically the narrative arc that sees Ika teach Naoh not only how to make fire, but also to abandon an “animalistic” sexual position (ie. from behind) for a “human” one (ie. face to face).  There’s undeniable humour in the situation – after all, Ika also teaches her new friends how to laugh – but ultimately, the film makes a moving statement about the human need for sexual intimacy not only as procreation but also as communication.  In a sense, the sex scene between Ika and Naoh is as pivotal as the making of fire, because it shows Naoh’s dawning awareness that to face another person is to acknowledge that person’s consciousness, and therefore to recognise her as an individual rather than a mere object.  Quest for Fire deals, in an elegantly simple way, with the psychological complexity of how unity and separateness play off each other, and how our attempt to surmount this paradox through sex makes us “human”.  It also represents one of the last instances of a “blockbuster” even attempting to broach the issue of human sexuality, a subject so comprehensively rinsed out of contemporary “event” filmmaking that it’s difficult to imagine how Quest for Fire’s forthright approach could ever have been possible.

Annaud followed Quest for Fire with a successful “palimpsest” of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, before directing a second extraordinary non-verbal film, L’ours (The Bear) in 1988.  With a certain poetic justice, this strikingly conceived film (a huge international hit at the time) provides a dignified starring role for Bart the Bear, a gifted ursine performer who had previously been saddled with an unworthy part in the movie adaptation of Clan of the Cave Bear.  One of contemporary cinema’s few truly “international” filmmakers, Annaud has occasionally fallen into the trap of the “Euro-pudding” co-production, notably with 2001’s Enemy at the Gates, and his most recent film, 2011’s oil boom soap opera Black Gold, failed to make an impression.  Quest for Fire remains his most striking statement, closely followed by The Bear.  Now, as the imperative for films to communicate on a non-verbal level to a mass international marketplace continues to grow, both Quest for Fire and The Bear represent the work of a filmmaker who transcended the constraints of language without losing the singularity of his purpose.  Annaud’s best work doesn’t merely sidestep the problem of how to communicate with multi-lingual audiences without translation, but rises above it to create films that offer an alternative narrative of pure cinema.  Without sacrificing the spectacle of the adventure genre, he pushes against the boundaries of commercial cinema to raise eternally pertinent questions about what it is to be a “human”.

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David Turpin is a writer and musician (as The Late David Turpin). His web-site is Read his previous contributions here.