Quest for Fire (film)  

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Quest for Fire (La Guerre du feu) is a 1981 film adaptation of the 1911 Belgian novel by J.-H. Rosny (1856–1940). Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and adapted by Gérard Brach, the film stars Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, Nameer El-Kadi, and Rae Dawn Chong. It won the Academy Award for Makeup. Michael D. Moore was the associate producer in charge of action and animal scenes.

It is set in Paleolithic Europe, 80,000 years ago, its plot surrounding the struggle for control of fire by early humans.



The film begins with a raid by the apelike Wagabu tribe on the early human Ulam tribe, 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 sachel 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 Wagabu, the surviving Ulam escape but are chased into a marsh by a pack of wolves. The Ulam's bald-headed 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, Naoh (Everett McGill), Amoukar (Ron Perlman) and Gaw (Nameer El-Kadi), on a quest to find fire.

After a frightening encounter with a pair of saber-toothed cats (which leave the three of them perched in a small tree all night) the trio desperately seek food and soon enter the territory of the Kzamm, a Neanderthal tribe who practice cannibalism by capturing and eating members of the Cro-Magnon (early modern humans) Ivaka tribe. Gaw and Amoukar pretend to be crazy madmen to create a ruse and cause the Kzamm tribe to scatter, and Naoh manages to steal some fire, but not without being injured in a fight with two of them. One of his injuries is a bite to the genitals, causing him extraordinary agony. After killing his opponents (smashing a rock over the head of the Kzamm tribesman who bit his genitals) and disposing of the Kzamm's remaining fire in contempt, Naoh rejoins Gaw and Amoukar, still limping in agony.

A young woman named Ika (Rae Dawn Chong), an Ivaka prisoner who escapes with Naoh, follows them in gratitude, seeking protection. Despite attempts by Amoukar to drive her off, she follows, eventually taking advantage of food gathered by Amoukar and Gaw to approach Naoh. After she makes a primitive poultice, helping him recover from his injury - and apparently fellating him, although the film hints strongly at this rather than showing it explicitly. The four begin their trek towards the Ulam, followed by the Kzamm. Attacked by the hostile tribe, the group takes advantage of a wandering herd of Wooly mammoths to make good their escape. While they travel back towards the Ulam territory, Amoukar attempts to have sex with Ika. She hides near Naoh, who then demonstrates his claim on her by raping her in front of the other two males.

Ika soon recognizes that she is near her home and tries to persuade the Ulam trio to go with her. But, either the men's sense of purpose or the lack of a common language with the woman (or perhaps both) keeps them together on their way back to the Ulam. When Ika leaves them the next morning, Naoh is upset; at first he continues without her, but finds he cannot stop thinking about her. He turns around, followed by the reluctant Gaw and Amoukar. After Naoh leaves the others to scout a village, he is trapped in quicksand, nearly sinking to his death, but is discovered and captured by the Ivaka. At first, Naoh is teased and subjected to several forms of humiliation by the Ivaka, but eventually they accept him and show him their ways, initiating him into the tribe. Impressed by his physical features, they arrange for him to "service" all the high status women of the tribe who are large and big-breasted. The petite Ika is excluded by her tribe, and when she attempts to lay near him later that night, she is chased away by the other members of her tribe. The Ivaka soon demonstrate their advanced culture. They have atlatls (spear throwers), arts (body painting, huts, ornaments, primitive pottery), and most importantly, the ability to make fire. When Naoh watches a young boy (commonly mistaken for Ika) make fire, he is overwhelmed and his life is changed forever.

Growing impatient, Gaw and Amoukar go to find Naoh and are also captured by the Ivaka. During their ordeal, they are disturbed to realize that one of the teasers laughing at them is Naoh, initially unrecognizable as he now wears the full body-paint of the Ivaka (suggesting that some significant time has passed). When Gaw and Amoukar begin their escape during the night, Amoukar tries to inform Naoh of their plan but Naoh is affected by a crude fermented drink that he had been given by the Ivaka, and is unresponsive to Amoukar. Frustrated from the day's events, Amoukar 'persuades' Naoh to come along by knocking him unconscious. Ika follows the trio and helps them escape. Naoh and Ika make passionate love during a cloudburst, first by the initial, "animal" style short, rough copulation from behind seen several times before, eventually shifting around to the "missionary position", a position the Ivaka attempted to teach Naoh during his initiation. Intrigued and aroused by observing them, Amoukar approaches Gaw, who immediately rebuffs him. They also begin to finally understand the concept of laughter, something that had puzzled them earlier about Ika and the Ivakas. When Amoukar drops a small rock on sleeping Gaw's head, they all (even Gaw) burst out laughing.

On their way back home, the four run into a trio of Ulam hunters, led by Aghoo, Naoh's rival as dominant male of the tribe. Left by Naoh and Amoukar to guard the fire with Ika, Gaw is severely wounded in a fight with a mother cave bear, barely managing to escape. The other three members of the group find Gaw, and Amoukar carries him over his shoulder. When attacked by the Ulam rivals, the group uses several atlatls stolen from the Ivaka to dispatch their enemies. Thus the group demonstrates the advantages of embracing new technologies. Finally rejoining the Ulam tribe, the group present the fire to the delight of all. The fire tender, having been given the flame, prompts the tribesfolk into an outburst of joy. Due to the ensuing euphoria, the fire tender ends up falling in water again, extinguishing the fire. The enraged tribe nearly kills the fire tender, until Naoh, Gaw and Amoukar restrain and scold the group. Naoh then tries to create a new fire (the way he'd seen it done) using sticks, dung and dry grasses. After several failed attempts, Ika takes over, carefully rubbing the dry sticks together. Once the spark is lit, the tribe is overjoyed, cheering and overwhelmed again.

In the end, Naoh discovers that Ika is pregnant with their child. Naoh caresses Ika while they both gaze at the brightly lit moon.


Ulam tribe
  • Gary Schwartz ... Rouka
  • Naseer El-Kadi ... Nam
  • Franck-Olivier Bonnet ... Aghoo
  • Jean-Michel Kindt ... Lakar
  • Kurt Schiegl ... Faum
  • Brian Gill ... Modoc
  • Terry Fitt ... Hourk
  • Bibi Caspari ... Gammla
  • Peter Elliott ... Mikr
  • Michelle Leduc ... Matr
  • Robert Lavoie ... Tsor
Ivaka tribe
  • Mohamed Siad Cockei ... Ota Otarok
  • Tarlok Sing Seva ... Tavawa
  • Lolamal Kapisisi ... Firemaker
  • Hassannali Damji ... Old Man in Tree
Kzamm tribe
Wagabu tribe
  • Rod Bennett
  • Jacques Demers
  • Michel Drouet
  • Michel Francoeur
  • Charles Gosselin
  • Bernard Kendall
  • Benoit Levesque
  • Joshua Melnick
  • Jean-Claude Meunier
  • Alex Quaglia


The film was nominated for six César Awards in 1981, winning those for best film and best director. In 1983 it won the Academy Award for Makeup. Also in 1983, it won in five categories in the Genie Awards.

Historical accuracy

As an adaptation of a 1911 novel, the film's fidelity to the novel must be judged separately from its compatibility with the tenets of paleoanthropology at the time of its production.

The story of the novel takes place 80,000 years ago, during the last glacial period. The movie adheres to this date, but in the commentary accompanying the DVD release, the director Annaud stated that a much earlier date would actually have been more reasonable if he had made the film recently with modern knowledge of the subject matter.

The film, in keeping with the novel, presents three species of Homo: Homo erectus (Wagabu), Homo neanderthalensis (Ulam, Kzamm) and Homo sapiens (Ivaka). The Neanderthals are portrayed as the stereotypical cavemen, in an intermediate stage of development compared to the ape-like H. erectus on one hand, and the culturally more advanced H. sapiens on the other. According to current knowledge, Neanderthal interaction with early modern humans has taken place only significantly later than 80,000 years ago, from about 40,000 to 20,000 years ago.

The H. sapiens tribe (Ivaka) is depicted as using body ornamentation (jewellery, body paint, masks, headgear), fully developed language and simple technology such as gourds as vessels and the atlatl, features that in combination amount to full behavioral modernity characteristic of the Upper Paleolithic.

The Neanderthals are depicted as Caucasian, the Kzamm even as red-haired, in a peculiar anticipation of the result of genetic studies conducted in the 2000s which concluded that some Neanderthals did indeed have red hair. The H. sapiens woman Ika is depicted as wearing full body paint, and is cast with a multiracial actress, leaving her racially indistinct. This is again in keeping with studies post-dating the film which established that light skin in European descendants of Cro-Magnon developed only towards the end of the Middle Paleolithic, or during the Upper Paleolithic.

Like the elements of human culture, human-Neanderthal interbreeding is likely to have happened later than the film is set. Scientists debate the extent to which H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis ever interbred, based on continuing research, but some evidence discovered since the film's release suggests that such interbreeding did occur in Europe.

The language spoken by the Neanderthals was created by Anthony Burgess. The more advanced language of the Ivaka, according to Annaud's commentary on the DVD, was largely that of the Cree/Inuit native people of northern Canada, which apparently has caused some amusement among those in this group who have seen this film, since the words have little to do with the plot. The gestural and body language was overseen by Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape.

In popular culture

A play on the title of the film gave the name of a popular 8 bit game, B.C.'s Quest for Tires.

The band Iron Maiden's song "Quest for Fire" (from the 1983 album "Piece of Mind") is inspired by both the film and novel of the same name. An episode of Family Guy parodies the film creating a novelty porno title from it: Quest for Fur. The film is also briefly mentioned in the TV series Psych, when the protagonists mention that they were watching a Rae Dawn Chong movie marathon.

British neo-progressive band IQ's second album The Wake (1985), has a cover painting by the band's lead singer Peter Nicholls which features as its centrepiece the face of Chong as Ika.

In the 1991 film, Armour of God II: Operation Condor, Jackie Chan steals jewels in a cave where he encounters a tribe that wears white and black paint and straw masks resembling that of the Ivaka tribe. The tribe also forces Jackie to marry their rotund priestess after drinking their "holy water".

In the 1995 Ellen season three episode, "the Movie Show", Carrie Fisher (playing herself) mentions the actress Rae Dawn Chong and uses the plot of Quest for Fire to reunite feuding friends Ellen (played by Ellen Degeneres) and Paige (played by Joely Fisher).

The South Park episode, "Bebe's Boobs Destroy Society" features the main characters devolving to a state similar to cavemen when presented with a classmate's developing breasts. The boys find themselves unknowingly obsessed with breasts and repeatedly utter the phrase (spelled phonetically as) "ah-tah", a reference to the word for 'fire' in this film.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Quest for Fire (film)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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