Quest for Fire (film)

Quest For Fire

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud
Produced by Jacques Dorfmann
John Kemeny
Véra Belmont
Denis Héroux
Michael Gruskoff
Screenplay by Gérard Brach
Based on The Quest for Fire
by J.-H. Rosny
Starring Everett McGill
Rae Dawn Chong
Ron Perlman
Nameer El-Kadi
Music by Philippe Sarde
Cinematography Claude Agostini
Edited by Yves Langlois
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
February 12, 1982 (1982-02-12)
Running time
100 minutes
Country Canada
Language Invented language
Budget $12 million[1]
Box office €40,602,910

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

The story is set in Paleolithic Europe (80,000 years ago), with its plot surrounding the struggle for control of fire by early humans. The movie was filmed on location in Cairngorms National Park in Scotland and Tsavo National Park and Lake Magadi in Kenya. The opening sequence was filmed at Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island, BC (forest scenery) whereas the cave home was filmed at Greig's Caves on the Bruce Peninsula along the Niagara Escarpment near Lion's Head, Ontario.


The film begins with a raid by the ape-like Wagabu tribe on the early Homo sapiens 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 fabricated bone satchel 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 the marsh the embers are doused, leaving the tribe doomed to die from exposure and thirst. 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 - the four begin their trek toward the Ulam, followed by the Kzamm. Attacked by the hostile tribe, the group takes advantage of a wandering herd of woolly mammoths to make good their escape. While they travel back toward the Ulam territory, Amoukar attempts to have sex with Ika. She hides near Naoh, who then demonstrates his claim on her by mounting 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 lie 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 important, the ability to make fire. When Naoh watches a boy make fire, he is emotionally 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 rough, animal-style copulation from behind seen several times before, eventually shifting around to the missionary position, a position that Ivaka had 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
Ivaka tribe
Kzamm tribe
Wagabu tribe


Quest for Fire received positive reviews from critics. It holds an 83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 18 reviews.

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.

Scientific accuracy

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. Clearly, in order for Neanderthals and something like Homo Erectus (the very hairy ape-like hominins that attack the Neanderthal encampment early in the film) to exist, the scenes depicted would need to date to at least 150,000 years ago. Such a dating would still be consistent with the use of Clactonian technology, which is depicted by the Neanderthals in the movie, and the development of symbolic language, a trait that is demonstrated by the more modern human female who accompanies the film's Neanderthal progenitors through most of the story. The use of wooden spears by the Neanderthals and the hand drill style of fire-starting by the modern female would also be consistent with the earlier dating.

The film, in keeping with the novel, presents two species of Homo: Homo neanderthalensis (Wagabu and Kzamm) and Homo sapiens (Ulam and Ivaka). The Ulam are portrayed as the stereotypical cavemen, in an intermediate stage of development compared to the ape-like Wagabu, on one hand, and the culturally more advanced Ivaka on the other.

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. These are features that, in combination, amount to full behavioral modernity characteristic of the Upper Paleolithic.

The Ulam and Kzamm are depicted as light pigmented, the Kzamm even as red-haired, in a peculiar anticipation of the result of genetic studies conducted in the 2000s[2] which concluded that some Neanderthals did indeed have red hair.[3] 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.[4]

The language spoken by the Ulam was created by Anthony Burgess. The more advanced language of the Ivaka was largely that of the Cree/Inuit native people of northern Canada, which caused some amusement among those in this group who saw the film, since the words have little to do with the plot.[5] The gestural and body language was overseen by Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape.

A play on the title of the film gave the name of a popular home computer video 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. Also, 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 (Ellen Degeneres) and Paige (Joely Fisher).

In the Trailer Park Boys episode "The Mustard Tiger" Bubbles refers to Sam Losko as "Quest for Fire", another joke in the long running gag that Sam Losco is a Cave Man.

In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Beer Bad" Xander says, “How much beer would you say a person needed to consume before they started seriously questing for fire?”

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.

An episode of Family Guy, "And I'm Joyce Kinney", parodies the film by 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.

See also


  1. Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Scarecrow Press, 1989 p259
  2. "Neanderthals 'were flame-haired'". 2007-10-25. Retrieved 2009-12-29.
  3. "American Anthropological Association Statement on 'Race'". 2008-05-17. Retrieved 2010-07-07.
  4. NG, Chaplin G. 2000 The evolution of skin coloration Archived January 5, 2015, at the Wayback Machine.
  5. This is according to Annaud's commentary on the DVD. Annaud also comments that his film was popular in Greenland where Inuit is also spoken.
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