Somewhere nestled within our human genes are the ancient rhythms and rituals of our forbearers. Quest for Fire takes us back 80,000 years to probe early human aggression, territoriality, dominance, and education. Jean-Jacques Annaud (Black and White in Color, Coup de Tete) directs this saga about primitive homo sapiens. It was shot on locations in Scotland, Africa, and Canada. He calls it "a science fantasy film" which means the movie is designed to elicit our sense of wonder about human nature and the drama of the present past.
Quest for Fire is written by Gerard Branch, based on a turn-of-the-century French novel by J. H. Rosny, Sr. Desmond Morris, a zoologist, and novelist-linguist Anthony Burgess have created a primitive language mixing gesture and words for the tribes depicted in the movie. Additionally, Philippe Sarde's majestically score and Claude Agostini's impressive cinematography make Quest for Fire a class act.
Much of our present day behavior is rooted in the primal past. The Ulam tribe have organized their lives around fire. They use it for preparation of food, warmth, and enjoyment. But they do not know how to create it; if the flames in their cave shelters are extinguished, they must steal it from others or by chance find a bush set on fire by lightning.
The Wagabou are a brand of brutes who, using animal bones for weapons, prey upon other tribes. In a violent sequence, the bloodthirsty plunderers attack the Ulam, sending them into the wilderness. Sigmund Freud once wrote: "Men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love…A powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned with as part of their instinctual endowments."
The opening pitched battle in Quest for Fire may seem gruesome, but it is only a footnote to the contemporary celebration of raw aggressiveness of pro football teams on Superbowl Sunday, the interest many have in making a "killing" on the Stock Market, or pop psychology's affirmation of verbal assault upon individuals.
When the source of heat for the Ulam tribe is taken by the Wagabou, the shivering band of men, women, and children chose three hunters to find some fire. Naoh (Everett McGill) leads the expedition. He, Amoukar (Ron Pearlman) and Gaw (Nameer El-Kadi) venture out into strange new territory. Their instincts serve them well when they meet some saber-toothed tigers and a herd of mammoths. In the first instance, they climb to safety in a tree; in the second, Naoh feeds the huge animals while members of the Kzamm, a cannibalistic tribe which has been chasing the three Ulam, cower in the tall grass.
Everyone is familiar with the need to stake out one's territory in a crowd, on a beach, or in a jammed cafeteria. Our pride in home or our love of country are evidence of our similarity to early humans as territorial animals. In their continuing search for fire, Naoh and his partners are captured by the Ivaka who are by far the most advanced tribe in the film. Their territory consisting of a village of mud-and-straw huts is surrounded by a swamp of quicksand. They know how to keep intruders out.
The Ulam may be ignorant in the eyes of the Ivakas, but the spark of humanity shows itself when Amoukar carries Gaw on his back after he is mauled by a bear. In nature, many animals leave crippled creatures behind.
The Ivakas have found a way of shooting sticks and also have mastered the act of creating fire through the friction caused by rubbing two sticks together. In one of the film's most wonder-ful moments, Naoh's face lights up with a blend of awe and delight when he learns the trick which will help set his tribe further along the way to civilization.
Ika (Rae Dawn Chung) falls in love with Naoh and returns with him to his waiting community. She teaches him the missionary position and transforms the act of sex into one of variation and tenderness. Behind every great man is an Ika.
Perhaps one of the chief obstacles to human development is fear. Quest for Fire makes the fright of these people very palpable. As philosopher Bertrand Russell has noted in "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish": "Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty." But men and women are also educable creatures, and that trait has been a key to survival. Quest for Fire illustrates this truth convincingly. All who live in America today should remember this message. Let's give Russell, from the same essay, the last word: "Neither a man nor crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of great fear."