Review: Quest for Fire (1981)

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Review: Quest for Fire (1981)

Author: coming soon
ISBN: coming soon
Published: coming soon
Format: coming soon
Pages: coming soon

Product Description

The cinema of anthropological fantasy got a major boost from the surprise success of Quest for Fire wherein the so-called “dawn of humanity” got its most responsible and studied re-creation, far from the Saturday matinee dinosaur vs. man fantasies usually associated with this subject matter.  Although arguably still a fantasy, it was made with an earnestness absent from this genre, to give it a documentary-like quality.  Thus, to capture the movements of primitive humans, noted anthropologist Desmond Morris was brought in to choreograph a special system of body language modeled on his studies of simian behavior and to detail a primitive spoken language, noted author and linguist Anthony Burgess (who had created the teenage argot “nadsat” for his celebrated novel A Clockwork Orange) developed a unique 300 word vocabulary for the characters.  After a lengthy casting process, the actors endured a fierce regimen and had to cope with the harsh conditions of filming in isolated locations in Kenya, Scotland and Canada where French director Jean-Jacques Annaud sought to capture the sense of a recognizable yet otherworldly landscape.  Obtaining the money to make this unique vision, however, had proven initially daunting, as American sponsors considered it decidedly uncommercial.  Nevertheless, the sheer persistence of these dedicated filmmakers resulted in one of the screen’s truly unique accomplishments.

Quest for Fire is set some 80,000 years ago, when human evolution was diversifying and primitive cultures were in turn developing at different rates.  A tribe of early humans have possession of fire but do not yet have the know-how to create it.  Thus, they must keep it burning at all times.  A rival tribe of Neanderthals attack them, seeking to steal the precious flame.  A bloody fight ensues in which the humans flee and manage to take with them only a dying ember.  When this goes out, three of them (Everett McGill, Ron Perlman and Nameer El Kadi) have to go off in search of more fire to bring back to the remains of the tribe, who will simply perish without it.  Accordingly, the three depart, the film following their subsequent adventures as they evade predatory animals (saber-toothed tigers and mammoths included) before finding the precious fire in the possession of a group of cannibals.  Stealing it through trickery, they are joined by a woman (Rae Dawn Chong) whom they free from the cannibals.  When she leaves, McGill chooses to go in search of her, in the process finding that she belongs to a more evolved tribe, which possesses the secret of making fire.  His two friends come to get him so that they all may return to their own.  They find his loyalty has eroded somewhat.  On their way back, however, they must face three rivals from their own tribe who want the glory of being the ones to bring back fire.

Filled with unusual incident, Quest for Fire is an extraordinary cinematic spectacle, also interesting for its acknowledged sense of anthropological condensation, dramatizing key moments in the development of the species.  It postulates that evolution has not been wholly consistent throughout this early world and that some cultures have in turn developed with more advances than others, leading to tremendous human variety in appearance, intelligence and communal living.  McGill is the protagonist as such, and much of the film concerns his plight as he grows to value the company of Chong more than his friends – thus dramatizing the emergence of love and even family values.  To describe this aspect as a love story is in some ways apt although it runs the risk of making this finely etched film seem silly, which it never is.  Instead, the film depicts the growing awareness of an early human that he may indeed be the master of his circumstances after all.  It is in that sense literally about the dawning of humanity.  Thus, the struggle for survival against the elements slowly becomes less cumbersome as early humans begin to be aware of other possibilities – friendship, family, communication and pleasure.  From the outset the film considers the mastery of fire to be the essential point when humanity began to harness and conquer the elements, freeing it from the dictates of mere survival.

Survival is in the film not just a physical concern but also a matter of cunning deliberation, elemental strategy and most importantly, the ability to conquer fear and the realization, on a primitive level, that nothing is beyond one’s reach.  This again is seen as an essential human trait.  The scene where McGill realizes that humans can make fire as a means of mastering their environment is thus a staggering moment, beautifully played.  From a sheer behaviorist standpoint the film is fascinating, with attention to detail and an engrossing, amusing depiction of primitive sexual behaviors, leading to a much remarked on scene wherein Chong teaches McGill to make love face to face for the first time.  Indeed, many of the moments that work as a kind of anthropological drama are those which dramatize those aspects of behavior and attitude considered unique to humans (sexual position and laughter being the two most obvious) – a deliberate decision which is admitted in the commentary tracks accompanying the movie on this DVD release.  Although the unexpected box-office success of this film seemed for a time to initiate a move towards more anthropological fictions, the potential was dissipated in the likes of the crude farce of Caveman and the silliness of Clan of the Cave Bear.  However, in the brilliant Quest for Fire cinema had its most vividly realized piece of anthropological speculation.

The anamorphic widescreen transfer is for the most part exemplary despite some very minor frame edge moments and rustiness.  The restoration of the original widescreen aspect ratio adds tremendously to the sense of unusual spectacle.  The landscapes are surprisingly varied as the film does convey an eventful visual journey, the contrast of drab earthen colors to an almost autumnal lushness being commendable – forests, swamps, cavernous hillsides, open plains all feature to approximate a primeval landscape.  Of course, fire is the heat and visual warmth in the film, and the scene in which McGill tries to restore a dying ember amidst a graying, foggy marshland captures just how much life and fire were intertwined.  Hence the sheer magic of the scene in which he realizes that humans can make fire.  Annaud’s vision is consistently breathtaking and the transfer admirably preserves this unique experience.  Just as there is a sense of progression to the landscape so to is there always the sense of time passing, with light and color affected accordingly.  Much of the film’s distinctive look comes from the excellent costuming and makeup effects as well as the unique acting style, subtle differences in look and gesture between individuals making for surprisingly engaging and distinct characterizations and much humor.  This is a visually outstanding motion picture and is thankfully preserved intact on this superior transfer.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound transfer is equally exciting as the film benefits from a most unusual and exemplary score, seemingly experimental and often ominous.  In design, the placement of sounds has a vivid directional play throughout this transfer and the combination of natural weather and animal noises makes for a harsh physicality in aural ambience as well as in look.  The sound use and score convey the sense of natural hostility and threat, thus underlying the elemental strangeness of this world.  In a moment, the score seems almost a brief homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the opening sequences of which are acknowledged as one of the inspirations for this movie.  The score is carefully used and is a vital part in the enhancement of existing dramatic tensions, enriching the experience without ever distracting from it.  The roar and cackle of fire also has a definitive presence – in effect perhaps even a reassurance to these primitive men – and the blowing on embers to ignite them as well as the burrowing sound of one stick rubbed on another work well in suggesting the realistic and almost mystical atmosphere surrounding the creation and preservation of fire.  Unusual sounds mix with the rudimentary language skills of these early humans to create a film as distinctive in sound as it is in vision.  As cinema craftsmanship the film is triumphant in its blend of the authentic and the visionary.

As befits such an interesting and unusual film, there are numerous special features on this DVD, making it a true delight for collectors and students.  Although not directly labeled a Special Edition, much care has gone into making the DVD as entertaining and informative a package as possible.  There is an original trailer (which inevitably compares the film to the epic grandeur of Stanley Kubrick) and a promotional documentary narrated by Orson Welles entitled “Quest for Fire Adventure”.  It explores the background to the production, the role of fire in prehistory and the anthropological research and speculation processes involved in the filmmaking as well as the actual locations used and the meticulous concern for authenticity in makeup and costume.  It features footage of both Morris and Burgess at work, and goes into the lengthy production process and funding difficulties, concluding the film’s theme to be that of “the universality of man”.  There are also fifteen galleries of stills all with running director commentary, covering the locations, storyboards, inspirations, set design, prop design, the casting and rehearsal process, costumes and make-up as well as offering behind the scenes snapshots, productions photos, promotional information and a closer look at Burgess’ original glossary.  In addition, there are two commentary tracks on offer, one by the director and the other by the principal cast members and producer.

Annaud’s commentary covers the locations, the cuts made for sensitive audiences in the UK (about 2 seconds) and how Annaud feels that anthropology and science can aid the imagination.  He talks of the subtlety of performance, its simian influences, and his preference for single takes and of how he chose to gradually reveal the characters developing traits associated with humanity.  He offers additional anecdotes (including information about the film’s reception with dedicated Creationists in the US Bible Belt – the one place the film flopped), his use of Inuit language for Chong’s tribe and his thoughts on other films dealing with prehistoric man.  It also details his working relationship to the actors (especially Perlman, who would star for Annaud in later films, most recently in Enemy at the Gates) and his choice of locations to both reflect the known origins of the species and to convey an unknown world.  The second commentary track, by Chong, Perlman and producer Michael Gruskoff, adds many more production anecdotes, with Perlman particularly commenting on the film’s humor (and its vaudevillian sensibility).  Mention is made of the behaviorist intent to differentiate the tribes in terms of evolutionary progress and cultural sophistication to demonstrate the uneven course of evolution (a theory espoused by Desmond Morris in particular) with Perlman saying that the film is still screened in anthropology classes.

 

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