I often think about how different our lives would be without language. Our dependence upon words for communication goes so deep that even the vast majority of our thoughts are verbal. A person in our society with no understanding of words or language would have great difficulty in life, and they would have trouble maintaining meaningful relationships in the Western World. The 1981 film Quest for Fire gives us a glimpse into what it would be like to live in prehistoric times, before the conveniences of modern languages. Because of this, most of the film’s script is composed of grunts or primitive phrases that may seem too humorous for many viewers to take seriously. However, the film as a whole is a rather moving tale of the culture and struggles of early man.
To be honest, I don’t know the name of a single character in this movie, and for the most part, that doesn’t matter. The film begins with a tribe of Neanderthals, the Ulam, who have fire that they are able to carry with them in a makeshift bone satchel. Without the knowledge of how to start a fire themselves, the fire in the satchel must always stay lit in order for the people to have both warmth and light. After an attack from an apelike tribe, the Ulam lose their fire, and three young men from the tribe set out with the satchel on a journey to glean fire from another source and return it to the tribe.
At first I thought that the lack of language in Quest for Fire would be a difficult obstacle for director Jean-Jacques Annaud to overcome, but it turns out that the non-verbal script actually serves the setting of the film quite well. Without words, only raw thoughts and emotions come from the characters, and their lack of understanding of the world around them adds to the wonder of the film. More effective tools and weapons are discovered slowly throughout the movie. When the trio are encountered by a pack of wooly mammoths, the group treats them like gods. A bear attack feels much like an attack from a troll would in a fantasy film. In fact, Quest for Fire feels much more like a fantasy adventure than a historical account. Even though the plot takes place on earth, it’s a version of earth that we have never experienced. This creates a setting for the film that is unlike any other that I’ve seen, and a sense of wonder that could rival Spielberg.
There are some parts in this film that are hard to take in. The Neanderthal in the movie haven’t moved much beyond their animal predecessors, and their sense of morality is still developing. There are a handful of sex scenes in the film that seem like rape scenes at first, but play out like most sexual encounters do in the wild. You could say that some of these scenes are chauvinistic, but I think that such a comment would show a lack of understanding of the times. Soon after the trio’s journey begins, they run into another tribe that actively partakes in cannibalism, an act that disgusts the three from the Ulam tribe. It is interesting to watch the characters develop their understanding of both morality and the world around them throughout the film, and later on in the story, I actually found myself invested in these grunting nomads.
The acting is fine, although it definitely isn’t the focus of the film. Everett McGill plays the leader of the trio, accompanied by a young Ron Perlman and Nameer El-Kadi. The group is later joined by a woman, played by Rae Dawn Chong, from a tribe that is a bit more developed than the Ulam. The interactions between her and the Neanderthal group are believable, and they work for what the film requires. The real praise for Quest for Fire, however, should go to Annaud for such a masterfully crafted adventure. The costumes and makeup are great, the sets feel real and believable, and the whole experience is quite breathtaking. The French filmmaker does a great job transporting the audience into this world, a feat that many of his contemporaries from this time were not able to emulate.
I’m not going to say that this movie is perfect. It lacks a certain sense of congruency that we see in the narrative of other cinematic classics, and there are a few scenes that seem unnecessary, even if they give Perlman’s character a chance to provide some comic relief. Also, even though I enjoyed the script consisting of grunts and primitive language, I can see how some viewers might find this to be grating. I’d be lying, however, if I said that I didn’t fully enjoy Quest for Fire. It is one of the most creative and risky films that I’ve ever seen, and despite the main characters’ lack of intelligence, the film ends up being a rather smart adventure. Quest for Fire is one of those forgotten gems from the 80s that most from people from my generation haven’t seen, and one that I hope to introduce my friends to soon.