(Welcome to Videodrome. A monthly column plumbing the depths of vintage underground cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir and beyond.)
Every so often, I go back to Quest for Fire. Whether it’s to ground me in visceral reminder of man’s wild natural state, or to put modern technology into perspective, or most commonly, just to enjoy its savage charms as a standalone piece of art, I return to watch it again. Usually late at night, almost always alone. Since my first viewing in 1988 (six years after its American debut), I’ve reveled in the scope of this film and its capacity to inspire awe and curiosity.
I once heard someone describe Director Jean-Jacques Annaud as the world’s best director of films in which no one speaks. It’s a fair characterization, as his works also include famously quiet films such as The Bear and Seven Years in Tibet. But upon deeper consideration, this isn’t just a snarky criticism–there is a distinct skillfulness required to tell a moving story with little or no language. It’s a feat that demands the capture of raw emotion and intellect through context. And Annaud has mastered the art.
It should be said of prehistoric films that the genre itself is a bit of an outlier. Sitting somewhere between sci-fi and historical non-fiction, Quest for Fire also has the element of fantasy going for it. After all, with no empirical record to fact check for accuracy, who can call out a filmmaker for depicting a colorful arena of mythical megafauna, cannibalistic troglodytes, and environmental hazards of the fairy tale variety?
On a surface level, that is what this movie is about. A fantasy adventure in the style of the great epics of the big screen, with sweeping landscapes and orchestral crescendos. It’s the saga of three cavemen who are forced by necessity to trek into the wilderness in search of their tribe’s only salvation, fire.
Transcending their primal utterances and ape-like gestures, the main characters gradually become enjoyable to watch and easy to root for. On this familiar hero’s journey, like so many action yarns, they find danger, treasure, loss and love. And symbolically, we feel a shared pride in their redemption, as theirs is the story of us.
But it’s so much more than that.
From a scientific point of view, the movie’s rep is sterling. After 35 years, a time period during which a number of anthropological discoveries were made, the underlying story of competition among early homo sapiens, Neanderthals and other hominids not only holds up, but in some ways is better accepted today than it was at the time of release.
Beyond the historical chronology lies a fascinating study of early human culture. Annaud and screenwriter Gérard Brach set an ambitious challenge by attempting to both tastefully and somewhat accurately capture the nuanced development of primitive society. The result is a commentary on the evolution of sex, relationships–platonic and otherwise–and the hierarchy of needs. If it isn’t already required viewing, Quest for Fire would make a worthy video complement to 101 level sociology courses.
On the subject of communication, the film places a tremendous amount of attention and care on portraying a realistic, primitive dialogue. The story’s central characters speak to one another entirely in an original, fictional language called Ulam, developed for the film by a goliath of linguistics and literature, the late Anthony Burgess. Writing in the New York Times before the premiere, Burgess had this to say about his newly crafted language:
In ”Quest for Fire,” viewers will find, one hopes, a society which resembles ours only in being anxious, predatory and violent. They will not, however, hear, as a concession to entertainment values, the kind of fractured English appropriate to being drunk or stoned.
Let’s take a step back. The wholesale construction of a non-existent phonetic dialect for a movie shows an impressive display of dedication and potential psychopathy on the part of the director.
It goes without saying then, that Annaud is…serious in his commitment to realism. While directing the film adaptation of Umberto Eco’s historical mystery The Name of the Rose, he spent four years location scouting, casting and building enormous castle replicas as set pieces for the film’s medieval setting. In Quest for Fire, this obsession with detail is evident throughout.
Filming spanned three continents, including swamp lands, mountains, savannas and forests. All the actors are naked or damn near it, and the number of incidental genitalia shots is PBS documentary-esque. Makeup effects and use of prosthetics are ample and effective. Wooly mammoths are played by costumed elephants, and sabre-toothed tigers are actually lions with large false canines affixed to their jaws. A bear attack scene uses all human-animal contact with no evident gimmickry. In fact, there are no special digital effects to be seen in this film. In 2016, this is still spectacular.
It ranks up there with Metropolis, and Blade Runner as that rare case of a successful interpretation of an imaginary world using all analog storytelling devices. The result is like watching Planet Earth, except the object of fascination is not a chimp but your own ancestors. Which is probably what I love most about it–the mix of Hobbesian brutality with not so faint echoes of progress.
To overcome terrifying obstacles, these early humanoids found ways to solve problems in modern human ways. But their heroism is a product of fear more than machismo. Their ingenuity, a product of desperation. In a movie landscape in which modern protagonists are so handsome and physically fit as to creep dangerously close to the disturbing uncanny valley, the heart and soul of a big-browed caveman just brings me back to basics. Over and over again. words / j campbell