“Fire was a symbol of power and a means of survival. The tribe who possessed fire, possessed life.” – Opening title card
That is the last piece of modern language iterated by the film. The filmmakers transport us 80,000 years into the past, to the Middle Palaeolithic era. The subsequent complex creation of communication was formulated by linguist and author Anthony Burgess (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE), zoologist Desmond Morris, and actors in advance formulating a gesture-based relay of thoughts. Without subtitles, QUEST FOR FIRE is a unique experience. When the cast come to interact in front of us, you’ll be swept along, understanding what is being suggested. Don’t for one minute think you’re in for a dry history lesson though. It is a thriller concerning the very essentials on Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of need. The extrapolations of what it must have been like struggling for survival without the ability to create fire are turned into a moving and visceral adventure. We are just before the dawn of civilisation, as Homo sapiens are soon to learn to harness flames.
Immediately fire’s importance is demonstrated: Cooking (in the loosest sense of course), warmth, sharpening weapons, scaring off predators. The tribe has assigned its own keeper of the flame. It is jealously guarded from the outside world. Once it is extinguished, they do not know how to start another, and have to wait for a natural phenomenon. The physicality of the talented performers show what’s at stake. Quickly, another tribe attacks them, further behind on the evolutionary ladder, though a formidable opponent: Neanderthal man. They covet their fire. It goes out, no one gets it. The casualties are numerous. The audience is given a lesson in the brutality of the age, woven into the narrative until fear pervades when the creative team desire it of us. The tone set, the survivors send off a small band, to seek out a new flame source, of three young warriors: Amoukar (Ron Perlman), Gaw (Nameer El-Kadi) and bright inquisitive group leader Naoh (Everett McGill).
Director Jean-Jacques Annaud and cinematographer Claude Agostini give the locations a vast uninhabited wonder. Jeopardy is never far – wolves, sabre tooth tigers; and then another tribe of Neanderthals, who begin to hunt them when they steal their flame and inadvertently allow their dinner to escape – Ika (Rae Dawn Chong). They are slowly feeding off her compatriot, which sends off chilling echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD. Ika, though from the most sophisticated tribe of the film, is drawn to Naoh. As team leader, he becomes torn between returning the fire to his people, or following Ika back to her tribe.
Like the best cinematic rides, QUEST FOR FIRE is emotional, allowing the characters to develop and for our affection to grow. Silent films have of course achieved this for decades, but the people in front of us here are only meant to know about 100 words. To have a compelling story, with that straightjacket, is all the more impressive. Over 30 years since its initial release, the charge has not dissipated, and perhaps even been enhanced in the light of Werner Herzog’s documentary CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (see the weapons scene), and in contrast to the dire 10,000 BC.
2.37GB | 1h 40m | 1024×432 | mkv