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Quest For Fire (1981)

June 17th, 2007 · 1 Comment

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80,000 years ago, with mankind’s survival dependent on fire and the creation of it still a mystery, a tribe of Neanderthals called the Ulam, including Naoh (Everett McGill), Amoukar (Ron Perlman) and Gaw (Nameer El-Kadi) are attacked by a tribe of primitive savages. The savages lack tools or language, but drive the Ulam from their cave. Isolated on a marsh, an elder selects Naoh, Amoukar and Gaw to search for new fire.

Crossing the Pyrenees Mountains and descending from a cold climate to a temperate one, the Ulam are chased by saber-toothed tigers and spend two days clinging to a tree. They come across a tribe of brutish cannibals who have fire, as well as a captive named Ika (Rae Dawn Chong). Naoh is successful in taking fire. Hungry and separated from her people, Ika travels with them.

They elude the cannibals by escaping through a pack of wooly mammoths. Ika introduces Naoh to several new concepts, including laughter, man-made shelter and even the missionary position. When Ika parts ways with the Ulam to return to her tribe, Naoh misses her. He ventures to the territory controlled by her people, advanced humans who possess the secret of fire.

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Producer Michael Gruskoff was in Paris working with Werner Herzog on Nosferatu when he received a call from an agent in L.A. Gruskoff was asked to meet with the agent’s client, director Jean-Jacques Annaud. Annaud had a 1911 novel written by naturalists Joseph Henri Honoré Boex & Séraphin Justin François Boex about prehistoric man. Gruskoff loved it and set it up at Columbia Pictures.

When management at the studio changed, the project was put into turnaround. Gerard Brach had adapted a screenplay, but without dialogue anyone would understand, none of the other studios wanted Quest For Fire. A friend of Gruskoff’s named Sandy Liebersen became president of Fox, and he agreed to develop it. Annaud began scouting locations and designing the look of the film.

Fox liked what they saw and gave Annaud a $9 million budget. A worldwide casting call ensued, but three of the film’s four leads ended up being American. This became a problem when the Screen Actor’s Guild called a strike as filming was to commence in July 1980. The filmmakers resorted to making the film a French-Canadian co-production and shooting was able to proceed that fall in Scotland, Kenya and Northern Canada.

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I wasn’t crazy about Quest For Fire the first time I saw it. I can only take mime acting in small doses, and even by the standards of the day, this movie is not very sophisticated. The woolly mammoths are just elephants wearing fur costumes, and without any post-production effects, the film lacks style, to put it nicely.

On a second viewing, I was able to enjoy the movie a lot more and can even recommend it. Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, was hired to create the film’s 350-word vocabulary, while zoologist Desmond Morris developed the body language and gestures. These went over my head initially, but on repeated viewings, I was able to appreciate the film, which features some of the most novel linguistics of all time.

The material covers man’s evolution and is fascinating, particularly as the film demonstrates how little we’ve changed. Phillippe Sarde composed a thunderous musical score, while the makeup by Sarah Monzani and Michele Burke won an Academy Award and is equally fantastic. This was the first film for both Ron Perlman – who made a career out of working with heavy prosthetics – and Rae Dawn Chong. I don’t think either has ever been better.

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“Despite the film’s occasional goofy turns, by the end, chances are, you’ll be rooting for the Ulam to work out that nifty little stick-rubbing trick for themselves,” says Rachel Sanders at Apollo Movie Guide.

WearetheMovies raves, “The handful of other caveman films are either about handsome brutes fighting dinosaurs or maybe a caveman traveling to the future, and learning to rock from gawky teenagers. This makes Quest for Fire unique.”

“The film genuinely makes you feel the awe its primitive heroes feel for innovations, like fire, that the modern world takes for granted,” says Adam-Troy Castro at Sci-Fi.

Tags: Based on novel

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Joseph R. Valdez // Jun 18, 2007 at 6:41 am

    Dear # 1 Son,

    I remembered seeing this one with you!

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