Quest for Fire (film)

Quest for Fire (French: La Guerre du feu) is a 1981 France-Canada science fantasy 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 Belgian novel The Quest for Fire by J.-H. Rosny. The story is set in Paleolithic Europe (80,000 years ago), with its plot surrounding the struggle for control of fire by early humans. It won the Academy Award for Makeup.

Quest For Fire
Theatrical release poster by Carl Ramsey
Directed byJean-Jacques Annaud
Produced byJacques Dorfmann
John Kemeny
Véra Belmont
Denis Héroux
Michael Gruskoff
Screenplay byGérard Brach
Based onThe Quest for Fire
by J.-H. Rosny
StarringEverett McGill
Rae Dawn Chong
Ron Perlman
Nameer El-Kadi
Music byPhilippe Sarde
CinematographyClaude Agostini
Edited byYves Langlois
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
December 16, 1981 (1981-12-16)
Running time
100 minutes
LanguageInvented language
Budget$12 million[1]
Box office€40.6 million
($55.2 million)


The Ulam are a tribe of cavemen who possess fire in the form of a carefully guarded small flame which they use to start larger fires. Driven out of their home after a bloody battle with the ape-like Wagabu, the Ulam are horrified when their fire is accidentally extinguished in a marsh. Because the tribe does not know how to create fire themselves, the tribal elder decides to send three men, Naoh, Amoukar, and Gaw, on a quest to find fire.

The trio encounter several dangers on their trek, including an encounter with the Kzamm, a tribe of more primitive-looking cannibals. The Kzamm have fire, and Naoh, Amoukar and Gaw determine to steal it. Gaw and Amoukar lure most of the Kzamm away from their encampment. Naoh kills the remaining warriors, but not before being bitten on the genitals by one, which causes him agony. The three Ulam take the Kzamm fire and prepare to head home.

A young woman named Ika, who had been a captive of the Kzamm, follows them. She makes a primitive poultice to help Naoh recover from his injury. Later, Amoukar attempts to rape Ika.[2] She hides near Naoh, who then mounts her himself in front of the other two males.

Ika soon recognizes that she is near her home and tries to persuade the Ulams to go with her. When they refuse, they go their separate ways, all the while calling out to them. Eventually Naoh 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 — Ika's tribe. At first, Naoh is subjected to several forms of humiliation by the Ivaka. He is forced to mate with 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. The Ivaka show Naoh their advanced knowledge of fire-making.

Gaw and Amoukar find Naoh among the Ivaka. They try to rescue him but Naoh seems unwilling to leave. At night, Ika helps them knock Naoh unconscious and escape the camp. The next day, Naoh washes off the Ivaka body paint. He tries to mount Ika again, but she teaches him the more intimate missionary position. Before they can reach their home, the three are beset by peer rivals from within the Ulam, who wish to steal the fire and bring it back themselves, but Naoh and his group defeat them using the Ivakan atlatls, which are superior to Ulam weapons.

Finally rejoining the Ulam, the group present the fire to the delight of all. But during the ensuing celebration, the fire is again accidentally extinguished. Naoh tries to create a new fire as he'd seen in the Ivaka camp, but after several failed attempts, Ika takes over. Once the spark is lit, the tribe is overjoyed.

Months later, Naoh and Ika prepare to have a child.




Antonio Barichievich as a Kzamm tribesman.


Writing and characterization

Special language forms were created by novelist Anthony Burgess, while patterns of movement and gesture were developed by anthropologist Desmond Morris.[3] 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.[4] The Ulam are portrayed as 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 Ulam and Ivaka are depicted as light pigmented, the Kzamm as red-haired. The Ivaka are depicted as using body ornamentation (jewelry, body paint, masks, headgear), fully developed language and simple technology such as gourds as vessels and the atlatl.


The movie was filmed on location in the Scottish Highlands 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.

Michael D. Moore was the associate producer in charge of action and animal scenes.


Critical response

Quest for Fire holds a score of 86% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 21 reviews for an average rating of 7.2/10, the critical consensus stating "Its characters can't do much more than grunt, but that doesn't keep Quest for Fire from offering a deeply resonant -- and surprisingly funny -- look at the beginning of the human race."[5]

Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four, writing that he saw it as a "borderline comedy" in the opening scenes, "But then these characters and their quest began to grow on me, and by the time the movie was over I cared very much about how their lives would turn out."[6] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune awarded three stars out of four, stating that "you may be tempted, as I was, to shout wisecracks at the screen. But then the basic appeal of the story begins to work, and every so often we find ourselves asking ourselves, 'I wonder if that's the way it did happen?' And when that happens, 'Quest for Fire' has you hooked."[7] Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote that the film was "more than just a hugely entertaining science lesson, although it certainly is that. It's also a touching, funny and suspenseful drama about prehumans."[8] Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times wrote that she did not know how historically accurate the movie was, "But this is film making, not carbon dating, and it seems that every piece of magic and the skill of every craft has been used to free our imagination, to let it soar with the film to see what life may have been like 80,000 years ago."[9] Pauline Kael of The New Yorker wrote, "It's almost impossible to guess what the tone of this ape-man love story (based on a French novel, by J. H. Rosny, Sr.) is intended to be. Are we meant to laugh at the gaminess? At the men's werewolf foreheads? (Thick hair sprouts about an inch above their eyebrows.) The director, Jean-Jacques Annaud, seems to be willing for us to laugh but not sure about how to tell us when."[10]

Scientific response

In an essay for the journal American Anthropologist, Brown University linguistics professor Philip Lieberman described as "absurd" the mixture of different levels of advancement among different tribes living in close proximity. Lieberman pointed out that it "would be most unlikely 80,000 years ago" for humans to still be exhibiting apelike characteristics, at the same time noting that the Ivaka tribe was depicted as having "a village culture that would have been likely 10,000 years ago."[11]


The film was nominated for six César Awards in 1981, including Best Original Screenplay or Adaptation for Gérard Brach, Best Music Written for a Movie for Philippe Sarde, Best Cinematography for Claude Agostini, and Best Sets for Brian Morris, winning those for Best Film and Best Director.[12] In 1983 it won the Academy Award for Best Makeup. Also in 1983, it won in five categories in the Genie Awards.[13]

See also


  1. Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Scarecrow Press, 1989 p259
  2. Travers, Peter (May 31, 1982). "Tommy Chong's Daughter, Rae Dawn, Launches a Fiery Quest for Her Own Career". People. Retrieved 1 December 2018. The rape scene with actor Everett McGill left her “scratched, bruised and crying. They shot it nine times. I counted.”
  3. "Quest for Fire (1981) / Quest for Accuracy". Retrieved 1 December 2018.
  4. 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.
  5. "Quest for Fire (1981) - Rotten Tomatoes". Retrieved November 19, 2019.
  6. Ebert, Roger. "Quest For Fire". Retrieved November 28, 2018.
  7. Siskel, Gene (March 5, 1982). "'Quest' fires imagination in eternal search for our origin". Chicago Tribune. Section 3, p. 1.
  8. Maslin, Janet (February 12, 1982). "Screen: 'Quest for Fire,' A Prehistoric Odyssey". The New York Times: C4.
  9. Benson, Sheila (February 11, 1982). "Evolution of the Seeker in an Uncertain World". Los Angeles Times. Part VI, p. 1.
  10. Kael, Pauline (March 8, 1982). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker: 114.
  11. Lieberman, Philip (December 1982). "Film Reviews: Quest for Fire". American Anthropologist. 84 (4): 991–992. doi:10.1525/aa.1982.84.4.02a00910.
  12. AlloCine, Prix et nominations pour La guerre du feu, retrieved 2018-03-15
  13. Hays, Matthew. "The wild story behind Quest For Fire — the oddly Canadian film that narrowly avoided disaster". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 1 December 2018.
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