Quest for Fire (1981)





Director:     Jean-Jacques Annaud

Starring:     Everett McGill (Naoh), Nicholas Kadi (Gaw),  Rae Dawn Chong, (Ika),  Ron Perlman (Amoukar),  Naseer El Kadi (Nam). 

Country:    French-Canadian film

Oscar:         Make-up

the best of the ancient man series because it's closest to the truth as we know it scientifically



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

"80,000 years ago, man's survival in a vast uncharted land depended on the possession of fire. For those early humans, fire was an object of great mystery, since no one had mastered its creation. Fire had to be stolen from nature, it had to be kept alive - sheltered from wind and rain, guarded from rival tribes. Fire was a symbol of power and a means of survival. The tribe who possessed fire, possessed life."

[The director in the DVD commentary says that they could add another 0 to the figure of 80,000 years ago, which would be 800,000 years ago or almost one million years ago.]

The Ulam tribe sleeps around the fire next to their cave.

In the morning the tribe is being watched by two more ape-like men. The Ulam men start smelling the air for any smell of danger. After awhile, the men relax. A little later, however, a whole tribe of the more ape-like men attack the Ulams.

After a lot of fighting and killing, the more ape-like tribe takes over the cave site. Only a few of the Ulams were able to get away and save themselves. The wolves start eating the dead from the battle.

The Ulams walk through marshy ground and gather around a small high spot of land that is relatively dry. It is cold outside and the people have no fire. The one hope they have is that there is a fellow whose main job is to keep a small fire going within a primitive cage and he might have survived the battle. The name of their fire man is Rouka.

The fire man shows up and starts walking through the marsh holding the fire container over his head to keep it from getting wet. The people on the high ground yell out with excitement over the prospect of getting fire again.

The fire man now steps into a beaver hole and it looks as though the container might have gotten wet. Men rush out to grab the container from the fire man and take it to the higher ground. There they work on trying to save the embers, but the situation doesn't look promising. A man keeps blowing on a small ember to get it to ignite his hair and get the fire going again. The ember, however, goes out.

The people are cold without fire. A woman picks up the container for the fire and puts it in front of a large man, known as Anoukar. Anoukar and two other men (Naoh and Gaw) will have to travel around searching for fire. They may even have to steal some fire from another tribe.

A rival leader wants to be in charge of the quest for fire. The oldest man in the tribe is the chief and he decides that Anoukar will lead the quest.

The three walk through a thick, dark forest and then start walking around a boggy area. The men see a male and female saber-toothed tiger trying to cross the bog. The men start running as fast as they can. There is only one tree around for miles and miles and the men rush to it and climb up it. The female tiger sniffs around the base of the tree and looks up at the men. Naturally, the men are frightened. One of the men falls asleep, the branch under him cracks, spilling the man onto the ground. He quickly climbs back up the tree.

The tigers are gone now and the men are out of the bog area. But they still rest up in a tree to keep them safe from the animals. They get down and resume their quest. In the distance they see the smoke from an apparently large fire. They wait for the group to move away from the fire and then the three questers head down to see if they can find at least some embers of the fire.

They find no trace of embers. For awhile they roll around in the ashes left by the fire. They find some meat on some of the bones thrown into the fire and one of the guys starts wiping the meat off and eating it. But then another man digs up what is a human head. Anoukar ate some of the meat and he now starts spiting out anything left in his mouth.

The three shadows follow the man-eaters. They watch from a mountain position as these people cook their food down on the plain. The men find some very smelly carrion around which the vultures are gathered. The birds are pushed away from the meat and one of the men strips off the hide.

At night the men crawl toward the tribe and the fire. Near the fire are two naked women who have been tied hands and feet to a large tree limb. Presumably, this is the next dinner for the tribe.

Anoukar and Gaw create a diversion so that most of the tribes men would follow them. This allows the third man to try to get some fire from the large bonfire. The third man, Naoh, is going to have to fight his way to the fire. One fellow gets his huge club caught amongst some rocks and the Ulam man is able to whack the enemy on the head and knock him unconscious. Another of the enemy jumps on Naoh's back. In the ensuing fight the man-eater bites into the interloper and the fellow cries out in pain. Naoh grabs a large rock and brings it down upon the biter's head.

Meanwhile, the two edible women break from their ropes. One has no left forearm and she is not healthy enough to run off like the other woman does.

Naoh now grabs some still burning branches and takes them with him as he looks to unite with his fellow tribesmen. They reunite and find a crevice between the rocks and start a larger fire. The men smell something strange so they pop their heads out to take a look.

All of a sudden the escaped woman pops up and makes a sound. The men grab their fire container and start moving away from the young girl. The girl, named Ika, keeps following the three men, even though they try to chase her away by throwing stones at her.

Ika knows that Naoh has been wounded and she prepares a poultice to put on the wound. Naoh is a bit immobilized so she can come to him without much fear of his grabbing her. She keeps on talking and talking a language that Naoh does not understand. He lets her get very close to him and this is when she puts the poultice on his wound. This act of kindness is rewarded by the men accepting her into their small group.

The little group has been followed by a lot of men of the human meat-eater tribe. Gaw awakens and senses some type of danger. Then he sees the other tribesmen coming toward them.

The three Ulam men start acting very fierce. All of a sudden the tribesmen start retreating from the area. They think the enemy is afraid of them. But, no, the enemy tribesmen are not scared of the Ulam men, but of the woolly mastodons standing behind them. When the mastodons start roaring at the men, they realize what just happened and why.

Naoh grabs some dried grass and brings it to one of the mastodons. The mastodon takes the grass from them. So now the group of four can approach the mastodons without fear. So the enemy thinks they can do the same thing, but they come acting ferociously, beating their clubs on the ground. This upsets the mastodons and they start making aggressive movements and noises. Now the mastodons start charging the enemy, who now run away.

At night by the fire Ika rolls around on the ground and so Anoukar starts to go to her. She doesn't want the man's attention, so she seeks protection elsewhere. She heads over to Naoh who she trusts more. Naoh starts having sex with her, while she tries to get away from his grasp.

The next day when the men start the trek into the mountains, Ika yells for them to go with her to her village. The men just ignore her. So she has to follow them.

One morning Amoukar wakes up and Ika is not there. Naoh wakes up and immediately notices her absence becauseshe had had been sleeping next to him at night. He sees Ika running down hill away from them. Naoh gets mad that she just left and throws a rock in her direction, but she's just too far away.

Naoh misses Ika and thinks about her. He takes the fire cage and starts after Ika. The other two men don't like it, but they decide to stay put and wait for his return.

Naoh approaches a village on the plain. He steps into a deep hole and can't get himself out of it. He starts screaming out as the water threatens to rise above his mouth. The tribesmen start hurling short spears at him. Thank goodness Ika is there. She recognizes Naoh and tells her people not to kill him.

We see Naoh being carried like a dead animal tied to a long pole by the tribesmen. All the villagers come out to laugh and laugh at the strange man. This upsets Ika. Naoh sees the upset Ika in the crowd.

At night Naoh is given a woman who will have sex with him. Naoh is confused and doesn't understand what these people want him to do. The men shake their thin sticks to make a swishing sound. They are trying to tell him to get busy with the woman.

Naoh finally gets their meaning and gets behind the woman who is on all fours on the ground. Later at night, Ika goes into the hut where Naoh is sleeping and tries to lay down beside him. She is chased away by the chief.

A tribesman shows Naoh how to make fire with two sticks and some elephant dung. Naoh is truly amazed at seeing fire being created with so little effort.

Amourkar and Gaw have now gotten themselves stuck in the mud hole. And the villagers are all laughing at them. All the laughter bring Naoh out of his hut to check on what's happening. He is pleased to see his two fellow tribesmen.

At night Amoukar and Gaw launch an escape attempt. With his club Amoukar knocks out a few guards. He then goes into Naoh's hut, knocks him on the head and drags him outside. Ika is awake and sees all this happening. Ika decides to go with Naoh and his friends.

Ika shows Naoh how to make love facing the woman.

On another day Amoukar's rivals descend on the camp site. They grab Ika who starts screaming. This arouses the men and they start chasing after their enemies. Somehow Ika is able to get away from the strangers.

Gaw stays put with Ika at the campsite while Amoukar and Naoh go after the villains.  They hear some yelping and head down into the cave beside them. They come upon a bear cub. While Gaw bends down to pick up the cub, he is attacked by a large bear from behind. Ika runs out screaming for help.

Amoukar and Naoh hear her screams and come as fast as they can. Meanwhile, Gaw has gotten away from the bear. The three other humans find Gaw all covered with blood.

Amoukar piggy backs Gaw away from the bear cave. But now they have to deal with their rivals again because they have arrived and demand that the fire cage be turned over to them. Amoukar and Naoh grab the short spears thrown via a wooden arm stretcher. Two of the henchmen are killed quickly. And now they wound the leader in the leg. He won't be giving them any trouble any more.

The Ulam tribe members see four people coming toward them. They run out into the water to greet those that were on the quest for fire. Everyone is so jubilant. The fire man takes the fire cage from the men, but he slips and falls into the water. The fire is extinguished. The people are furious with Rouka.

Naoh gives his people a little pep talk and shows them how to make fire with two sticks.  But Naoh cannot get the fire started. So Ika has to take over for him. She quickly gets a fire started to the amazement of all the tribes people.

Ika is pregnant. Together, Noah and Ika watch the moon at night.



Finally, a good movie about ancient man without the dinosaurs (extinct 60 million years before the origin of man).  A tribe loses its fire and does not have the knowledge to start their own, so they must send out a small group in search of fire from other tribes.  The anthropologist Desmond Morris managed the body languages and gestures and Anthony Burgess invented the ancient languages.  This film is much more accurate than the other films about early man. One notices there are no dinosaurm but there are saber-toothed tigers and mastodons. The people can speak a primitive language. And the men don't act so aggressively, as in the often used "cave man" characters. Moreover, the men and women in this film do not look like modern human beings. They have an enlarged eyebrow ridge area and their teeth project more out of their mouths.

If you were only going to look at one of the films dealing with early man, it should be this one. It's an interesting story and the acting is very good. Ron Pearlman (as Amoukar) and Rae Dawn Chong (as Ika) were both great in their parts.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.





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