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Eighty-thousand years ago, fire was a mystery and had yet to be mastered. Tribes were able to house fire but not create it and thus, it was a heavily protected item, fed and nurtured like a living being and its value instrumental for survival against cold and starvation. It was also sought after, and those without it, hunted it mercilessly. Those who had it, had power, and to keep it was sacred. Fire was life.
On a crisp autumn morning, members of the Ulam tribe, a small band of early Homo sapiens hunker around the fire that guards their cave and catch the scent of something dangerous in the air. As the gruff and grizzled clan, lumbering with a wide gait crowd about the cave entrance, a palpable sense of fear spreads, but quickly dissipates. This is life in a hostile world. As the morning progresses, things return to normality. With grunts and some discernible vocal sounds, they eat cooked meat and groom each other in the morning chill. One young and libidinous man follows three females to a nearby brook and as they bend to gather water, exposing their naked rumps, he is unable to quell his desire and mounts one. All is normal in the tribe.
But then comes the apelike Wagabu clan wielding animal bones and clubs looking to take the cave and the fire for their own. The ensuing battle is ferocious and bloody, a brutal and horrific contest of numbers and strength that leaves many dead on both sides and the Ulam survivors on the run as the few Wagabu left alive pick at the embers of the dead fire, while the wolves come and ravage the corpses and body parts strewn about the encampment. Not free of the danger yet, now chased by ravenous wolves, the dwindling numbers of the Ulam escape to a swamp and huddle on a tiny island in the cold rainy mist.
But that is not the worst of their problems. The Firekeeper, an elder who protects the embers, carrying it with him in a small satchel made of bone and hide, has fallen into the water and doused the fire. After a cold night alone in the dark, it is decided that three men, Naoh (Everett McGill), Amoukar (Ron Perlman) and Gaw (Nameer El-Kadi) must venture into the wilds and go on a quest . . . for fire.
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, Quest for Fire is a bit of a conundrum at first since it is hard not to find the characters laughable. “Cavemen” have been the inspiration of comedy for well, ever, and seeing these actors in their jutted brows, scraggly hair and floppy animal skins is like a treasure trove of goofs and guffaws. Yet if one lets it, the movie has a sincerity to it that runs deep and the commitment by those involved are obvious. It doesn’t take long to become absorbed in the journey and by the finish, there is a strong attachment to the cause. You care about the people and can’t help but let imaginations run wild. Shot on location in the prehistoric looking forests and landscapes of Canada and Scotland, the atmosphere is thick with vibrant details, and as our three intrepid heroes search for a tribe with fire in which to steal their flame, they come upon a number of challenges that force them to become better men. The leaps in intellect are exaggerated for effect but demonstrate an arch in the evolution Man takes to overcome adversary. For example, on the plains they encounter saber-toothed tigers that chase them up a (very conveniently placed) tree despite all three men carrying sharpened spears, which they drop in their escape. Their solution is to wait out the hungry animals, and it takes two days hung up in the branches to survive.
Not long after, they come upon a clan of Neanderthals who are cannibals, capturing Cro-magnons and eating them. They have fire and the three man devise a plan to steal it, with two acting crazy and making the Neanderthals chase them while Naoh sneaks into the camp to grab the fire, though is still attacked by two Neanderthals who remained behind. Naoh manages to kill them both but not before sustaining a nasty injury: a full on chomp to his genitals. He steals fire and angrily douses the embers. From there, he meets up with his partners having secured the satchel and reignited the tribe fire.
It is a decidedly big leap in progression for the men and reveals new skills that will serve them next when a captive of the Neanderthals escapes and follows the men who she thinks can protect her. After tending to Naoh’s wounds with a poultice she creates and applies to his genitals, her trust is earned and she accompanies them on their way back to the swamp. This includes another run in with the Neanderthals who have tracked them by the smoke of their nightly fires. When an impending attack is eminent, the four travelers seem trapped but a herd of wooly mammoths crest a nearby hill and everything comes to a stand still as the great beasts are feared by both parties. Again, Naoh, who is fast becoming the representation of Man’s evolution, does not cower or run, but instead, approaches the herd with a handful of straw, offering the alpha food as a token of peace, much to the awe of his friends and enemies skulking in the underbrush in panic. This is Man’s newfound control over the animals and represents the shift in power of beast over human.
The history of Man is one of violence and carnage along with discovery and of course, humor. That is one of the bigger appeals in the movie, other than the very convincing action. While never set up as a joke, things happen that inspire joy as the three men learn and make mistakes. We have the benefit of time and reflection to look back at these journeymen and laugh along with their antics as they uncover what life truly means. Never dull and always provocative, Quest for Fire is an experience that should be had, if for anything to think more carefully about where we come from and how we came to be who was are.
At the Neanderthal camp, two captives are strung up in a low hanging tree branch, one of them already missing an arm and watching as the tribe eats it. The girl gnaws a twine around her wrists, desperate to escape. When Naoh enters the camp and fights off the captives and steal the fire, she breaks free and follows, hoping he will give her protection, which he eventually does. Not long after, as the four members of the company sit around a fire, Amoukar becomes aroused by the girl and decides to have her, forcing himself upon her, but Naoh takes a stand and a short grunting quarrel leaves Amoukar clearly the weaker, returning to a slab of meat. Feeling safe, the girl, named Ika, huddles at Naoh’s feet and Naoh, demonstrating his authority over all, mounts the girl from behind, forever claiming her as his. This is met with indifference by the two males, but there is an acceptance that follows. As the days pass, Ika remains by Naoh but reveals a broader sense of humanity than the three men, laughing at things that are funny and more importantly, speaking a more intricate language. She indicates that they should be going in a different direction (as they are close to her home village) but they press on, and one morning, when Naoh awakes, Ika is not at his side.
Naoh is overcome by grief. It surprises him and his companions. So strong is the loss of Ika on him, it forces him to abandon his quest. He sets off to find Ika and the two men follow but from a distance, unsure why their leader has taken a different path. As they wait atop a mountain for Naoh to return, Naoh finds Ika’s tribe and is captured. The tribe are far more advanced than anything Naoh has every seen, with huts, art, weapons and more. His impressive physical features inspire the local chieftain to have him bed a series of bulbous, large-breasted women who differ vastly with Ika, a petite young woman. Noah is soon accepted into the tribe and he is shown the most remarkable of achievements he has witnessed yet: they can make fire. The revelation is almost beyond Naoh’s capacity for understanding. He sits, stunned, perplexed and forever changed.
Not long after, both Amoukar and Gaw leave their roost on the hill and venture after Naoh, but they too are captured and discover that their leader has become one of the tribe. During the night, the two knock Naoh unconscious and carrying his out, fleeing the clan with Ika again, who has been shunned by her people, following. The four continue their journey to the swamp. And then comes the moment. Along the way, hunkered in the deep crevices of a rock face, they take shelter from the rain, with Gaw and Amoukar together and Naoh and Ika in another. The two have been growing closer with intimate touches and glances, a sense of deeper affection is forming. She cuddles close to him, and he gently turns her to mount her as any man does in his clan, which she accepts at first, but as their relationship has developed, so too as her emotions. She softly turns and lays upon her back and the invitation is clear but confusing for Naoh. Face-to-face with a woman is unheard of, and he is unsure of what to do, but Ika guides him and holds him and soon he is upon her, looking in the eyes. We see, in one sensual and emotional moment, the shift from animal copulation to human lovemaking. It’s a simple moment, but powerful in its presentation and for what it represents.
So it is, upon this long and difficulty journey for men, they come to learn much about how to survive in this changing world. We watch in a span of a short time as men claw their way out of caves and conquer the beasts that hunt them and the land that sustains them and tame even fire that had once been the most sacred of mysteries. Yet through it all, it is love that is the singular greatest discovery and the most enduring adventure, for in the hearts of those once grunting in caves to the eloquence of song in the warm embrace of a happy home, what carries us on through all time is the hope and promise of eternal love. Even if you’re a caveman.
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Writers: Gérard Brach, J.H. Rosny Sr. (novel)
Stars: Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, Nicholas Kadi, Rae Dawn Chong