The first human invention was not electricity, nor the steam engine, nor even the wheel, but fire building. We mastered the technology of starting fires approximately 100,000 years ago, and it changed the human species forever. The impact of this invention is at the heart of the 1981 feature film QUEST FOR FIRE, directed by French film-maker Jean-Jacques Annaud. After viewing the film for the first time on Netflix three days ago, I have awarded it the title of greatest film I wanted to see in my childhood. Allow me to explain.
Back in 1983 I was 12 years old and my family had subscribed to a pay TV service called “First Choice.” I remember reading the description of QUEST FOR FIRE in the March program guide (it came in the mail every month) and being absolutely fascinated. Here was a movie about ancient human beings–“cave men” as I thought of them then–which presented our ancestors not as a subject of humor or ridicule but as authentic people in the midst of an intensely grim struggle for survival. I was also intrigued by the program description which stressed that the film contained no dialogue–only the grunts and yells of primal man (though this description turned out to be slightly inaccurate, as at one point in the film our protagonists encounter a more advanced tribe who speak in a primitive language–though this invented-for-the-film language is, wisely, never subtitled for the film audience).
Alas, I never got around to watching QUEST FOR FIRE back in 1983 on First Choice. My brother, age eight, wasn’t interested, and there was always something else to do, such as play games on our Atari 2600, watch reruns of THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, and play street hockey in the cul-de-sac at the top of Avery Road. By April, QUEST FOR FIRE was no longer available on First Choice, and I promptly forgot all about it.
Until three days ago.
At home, feeling lonely and sad and flipping through Netflix, I saw QUEST FOR FIRE’s magnificent graphic which is, to this day, one of the finest movie poster designs I have ever seen. I settled down to watch it, thirty-three years after first learning of its existence through First Choice.
As I said, that was three days ago, yet I still can’t get the film out of my mind, and I suppose that is both a testament to the film’s power as art and cinema and an illustration of how deeply personally its themes spoke to me. Simply put, I loved this movie and regret having taken thirty-three years to finally see it.
Set 80,000 years ago and filmed in magnificently bleak locations in Canada and Scotland, QUEST FOR FIRE is the story of three ancient human men (who are later joined by a fourth, a woman) who embark on a quest every bit as trecherous and far more meaningful than Frodo’s journey to return the ring to Mordor–because although anyone with a functioning brain knows that Frodo is going to succeed even before the story begins, there is a very real ambiguity in QUEST FOR FIRE about the eventual fate of our three heroes. The fact that the movie made me care deeply about them demonstrates that acting is far more than reciting dialogue (of which there is none here) and that a good story can draw an audience into almost any premise.
The premise here is a simple one: our heroes are from a tribe that possesses fire but lacks the knowledge to create it. Presumably, at one point in the past, lightning ignited a bush or tree and the tribe has been tending the fire ever sense, “keeping the flame alive” in the most literal sense possible. Early in the film the tribe is attacked by rivals and the fire is extinguished. The film follows the journey of our three protagonists who travel on a quest to find another tribe who has fire, and steal it, and bring it back home. Fire is the secret to warmth, safety, light, the necessary prerequisite to civilization. Fire is also power–a superb early scene depicts a tribesman surrounded by wolves. Unafraid, he casually tosses a burning log at one of the wolves, causing it to howl in pain as the pack flees in fear.
I was deeply moved by the film. One scene in particular was palpable in its emotional impact. At one point the band’s leader, alone, falls into a tar pit in a desolate bog, and cries out, again and again, as he slowly sinks to what seems to be his inevitable death. I wanted to reach out my hand to him, pull him from the grime. His slow agony seemed to me symbolic of the human species itself–haunted by its gradual decay, its impending mortality. Yet, like the species itself, he continues to cry out, until he is rescued.
The tribesmen carry a lantern-like object in which they plan to bring back fire. In the film’s climax, our heroes witness a more advanced tribe create fire by rubbing two sticks together. It literally brings tears to our protagonist’s eyes, moving him as much as any religious experience could ever impact a modern person. Having learned the secret to not only possessing fire but creating it, the band begins its journey home.
The film is remarkable, really. It was billed as “science fantasy” and this seems like as accurate a description as any. It is both scientific in its depiction of early man and the brutal struggle of daily survival in the mud and muck while battling sabre tooth tigers, mastodons, and cannibals. It is also a fantasy that attempts to symbolize humanity’s slow transition from darkness to light, instinct to reason, fear to confidence, and animal passion to human emotion in a single journey of three brave souls. In a particularly moving scene, the film’s protagonist weeps when he realizes that his mate (a woman from a rival tribe) has left him, and he clutches bitterly at the straw on which she slept the previous night. By the end of the film they are reunited in a squence that contains not a trace of melodrama, but instead carefully subdued emotion. The film’s final shot shows the two of them pointing boldly at the moon while the rest of the tribe warms itself by the fire. The moral of this fable shines as clearly as that moon: the human species will always be battered, and bruised, and covered in mud, and it will always survive, and endure, and love. I wanted to cheer.