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Film / Quest for Fire

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"Drawn by quest for fire, they searched all through the land
Drawn by quest for fire, discovery of man"

Quest for Fire (French: La Guerre du feu, "The War of Fire") is a 1981 film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. It is based off the book of the same name by Belgian author J.H. Rosny aîné.

It is set in Paleolithic Europe, around 80,000 years ago, and concerns a small group of cavemen as they search for the fire their tribe needs to survive, not knowing how to produce it themselves.

Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, Nicholas Kadi, and Rae Dawn Chong appear as the primary group of cavemen followed by the film.

Provides Examples Of:

  • Acceptable Breaks from Reality: The film did an excellent job of showing that life for people at the time was basically a daily fight for survival and that humans were also not the dominant species on the planet. However, it is unlikely there would be such differently evolved tribes living in such close proximity to each other and there is some Misplaced Wildlife. That being said, had this not been written in it would've likely been a very dull story.
  • Accidental Pornomancer: The Ivaka happen to take a liking to Naoh and end up sending most of their women to his hut for sex, much to his initial confusion. (The Ivaka mate face to face, and Naoh can't figure out why the first woman is lying face-up, until she finally catches on and turns over onto all fours.)
  • Adaptational Dumbass: The Ulam come across this way unfortunately. They are much more primitive and ape-like than the book's intelligent neanderthals. Most notably, they can't comprehend laughter, something their book counterparts were definitely capable of.
  • Adaptational Heroism: The Ulam are portrayed as a peaceful tribe who were just minding their own business before they were attacked by the savage Wagabu. In the book, they were a warlike horde and the raid was an act of retaliation.
  • Adaptation Dye-Job: Aghoo, a Fiery Redhead in the book is dark-haired in the film.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Nam becomes Amoukar and the Wahs become the Ivaka. Strangely Nam's name is given to an extra who is easily missed if you don't watch the credits.
  • Adaptation Species Change: The cave lion and tigress that menace the trio in the novel are changed to two sabertooths in the film, albeit they are played by lions wearing false fangs and painted on stripes.
  • Adapted Out: The Red Dwarves, the Blue-Haired Men and many prehistoric beasts from the novel are omitted from the film. Gammla, Naoh's Shallow Love Interest from the novel is replaced by the much more fleshed out Ika.
  • Age Lift: Amouker and Gaw's novel counterparts are adolescents but they're clearly grown men here.
  • All Cavemen Were Neanderthals: Averted: As in the novel, many species of human are present. The Ivaka are clearly anatomically modern humans but the rest are more ambiguous.
  • All There in the Manual: Or in the original novel in this case, since the movie has no dialogue outside of fictitious language made for this movie. The Neanderthal tribe the protagonists belong to is the Ulam, the ape-like people that attack at the start of the film are the Wagabu, the tribe of hairy people the protagonists steal fire from are the Kzamm, and the tribe of Cro-Magnons that cover themselves in ash and have learned how to make their own fire are the Ivaka.
  • Ambiguously Brown: In contrast to the light-skinned Ulam, Ika and the Ivaka tribe cover their entire bodies in paint and have noticeably non-Caucasian features. Ika is played by Rae Dawn Chong, who is mixed raced. The director wanted the Ivaka to not conform to the appearance of any single ethnic group, in that they're a tribe of Cro-Magnons who predate modern ethnicities.
  • An Arm and a Leg: When the trio first meet the Kzamm, they have captured Ika and her mate and are hanging them upside down from a tree like game. The next morning, his arm has been amputated and eaten by the cannibals. Ika manages to free them both, but he immediately collapses and dies of his injuries, leaving her alone with no recourse but to join the trio on their quest. (His death is not entirely obvious, making the scene somewhat ambiguous.)
  • Artistic License Paleontology: The sabre-toothed cats are portrayed by lions wearing false fangs. Real sabre-toothed cats were physically very different from modern big cats.
  • Attempted Rape: Played with. The Ulam have a very limited language and no real concept of verbal consent, so when Amouker grabs Ika without permission, she resists and Naoh stops him... only to mount her himself a second later.
  • Babies Ever After: By the closing scene, Ika has become pregnant with Naoh's child.
  • Barbie Doll Anatomy: An odd example in a film with so much casual nudity: the Wagabu lack any visible genitals.
  • Bears Are Bad News: Gaw is severely mauled by a cave bear.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Naoh is the most handsome member of Ulam, and he is our primary hero. Our heroine Ika conforms to modern sensibilities of attractiveness, being sleek and slender, while her tribe prefers women that would be considered obese by conventional modern tastes. By contrast, the villains of the film, including the rival tribes of sub-humans and the treacherous members of the Ulam, are all ugly.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Seems to be the ideal of beauty among the Ivaka, to the point that the much thinner Ika is treated poorly for being deemed ugly.
  • Body Paint: All the Ivaka wear full body paint made of clay and charcoal. Naoh is painted in this way when he is initiated into the tribe.
  • Book Ends: The film begins and ends with the same long-shot pan to the fire.
  • Cannibal Tribe: The Kzamm.
  • Clash of Evolutionary Levels: There's basically a four-way evolutionary battle royale going on between the four primitive human tribes.
  • Composite Character: The Red Dwarves are omitted but their role in the story as well as their reddish colour is added onto the Kzamm.
  • Conlang: Writer Anthony Burgess created the prehistoric languages for the film. He explains his methods here.
  • Coitus Interruptus: At the beginning of the film, an Ulam male is vigorously copulating with one of the females when the Wagabu launch their attack. Needless to say, it kind of kills the mood.
  • Culture Clash: the Ulam and Ivaka are vastly different cultures, causing a few misunderstandings when they make contact (see Deliberate Values Dissonance below).
  • Decomposite Character: In the book, the Kzamm were bestial-looking cannibals. The film splits them into two tribes: the cannibal tribe that keeps the name Kzamm are much more human-looking than in the book, and the animalistic savages are now called Wagabu, who are hostile but not cannibalistic.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Ulam "courtship" consists of males grabbing random females and mounting them with little to no verbal communication or negotiation. This causes some problems when Ulam males come into contact with an Ivaka (Homo sapiens) female.
    • The Ulam don't understand laughter. When Ika laughs for the first time, they become unsettled. Later, they seem to have adopted the concept and bring it back home with them.
  • The Discovery of Fire: A variation: The Ulam have a basic understanding of how to control fire but their inability to actually start a fire condemns them once the fire they keep burning at all times is extinguished. Naoh is moved to tears when he sees a fire being started from scratch for the first time.
  • Do You Want to Copulate?: Sex in the paleolithic is extremely open and casual. Truth in Television: even today, people in hunter-gatherer societies live in very close quarters with little if any privacy, so sex often occurs in full view of other clan members, including children.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: In-universe. In one scene a guy gets hit on the head. Ika laughs hysterically for over a minute; the others glare at her. This is because the concept of laughter is unknown to them. Later, however, they have a healthy dose of it.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: The group returns with fire... only for it to be extinguished by the tribe's fire tender. Naoh tries to make fire with sticks, to no avail. Then Ika tries... and succeeds!
  • Fan Disservice: There is a lot of straightforward sex and nudity in this film, but most of it isn't very sexy. Most of the people aren't very pretty and the sex is rough, animalistic and often rape-like.
  • Fiery Redhead: The Kzamm are a whole tribe of very violent gingers.
  • Finagle's Law: When Naoh finally returns to his tribe with the fire, during the celebrations, one of the tribesmen trips and falls into the swamp, snuffing the flames.
  • Frazetta Man: The Wagabu definitely fit this trope, being hairy and bestial, with intense physical strength.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Averted. The film is quite bloody and gory in places, most notably the scene where a spear is thrust through a Wagabu's mouth and out through the back of his head.
  • Groin Attack: A Kzamm bites Naoh in the genitals, causing him severe pain. He is later healed by Ika.
  • Head-Tiltingly Kinky: Amoukar and Gaw have this reaction when they see Ika go down on Naoh.
  • Hotter and Sexier: The book was written in 1911 for young readers so naturally it merely makes vague references to sex. The film is rated R and features several explicit sex scenes and a leading lady who spends most of her screen time completely naked.
  • Humans Are Special: The Ivaka (anatomically modern humans) are initially the only people capable of understanding humor, starting their own fires, constructing free-standing shelters, and copulating face-to-face. Science Marches On, and it is now thought that all, or most, Homo species shared these abilities to some degree (even great apes like chimps and gorillas are known to understand humor and mate face-to-face).
  • Innocent Fanservice Girl: Ika is easily the most innocent and gentle character in the film. She is also casually naked throughout most of it (as is usual for her tribe) and, like most hunter-gatherers, is not the least bit shy about sex.
  • Interspecies Romance: Downplayed as they are both technically human but Naoh and Ika appear to be different species of hominid.
  • Intimidation Demonstration: A big factor in conflicts between human and proto-human tribes. The Kzamm smash their clubs on the ground when they approach the Ulam. Amoukar boldly responds with his own demonstration.
  • Intimate Healing: Ika's treatment of Naoh's wounded genitals seems to involve oral sex.
  • Jitter Cam: An early example of the trope, though not as pronounced as it is today. There's noticeable jitter during the tribal battles, typically reserved for 1 vs 1 shots. Also notable because these are not POV shots, which most pre-2000 jitter was limited to.
  • Keet: Ika definitely fits the bill, being small, cute and highly vocal with a loud laugh (something unknown to the Ulam).
  • Mama Bear: A literal example: Gaw and Ika tamper with a cave bear cub with the expected result.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Ika, who teaches Naoh and the other Ulam males to laugh and love.
  • Misplaced Wildlife: A Marabou stork appears in one scene. Marabou storks are found only in Africa and are thus out of place in Pleistocene Europe. The bird was probably chosen for it's bizarre "prehistoric" appearance.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Ika, a Homo sapiens female and the most conventionally attractive person in the film who wears little more than body paint and a smile for most of her screen time.
  • National Geographic Nudity: Ika (along with the other Ivaka females) is naked throughout most of the movie. In particular, Rae Dawn Chong was cast as Ika because she was the most comfortable with nudity. She remained nude and covered in body paint between takes to stay in character (as can be seen, briefly, in the behind the scenes documentary). The Ulam wear furs draped loosely over their bodies that often reveal breasts and buttocks.
  • Nubile Savage: Averted. Most of the women in this film are not pretty to modern sensibilities. Even the more conventionally attractive Ika doesn't fully conform to modern standards of beauty, being covered head to toe in clay and charcoal.
  • Pelts of the Barbarian: The savage Kzamm are clothed in heavy furs.
  • Promoted to Love Interest: Ika, in a sense. She is in most ways an original character to the film but Naoh did bond with a modern human woman who taught him the secret of fire in the book. The difference is that their literary counterparts kept their relationship platonic.
  • Questionable Consent: Given the culture of the setting, and the generally animalistic behavior on display it's unclear to what extent consent is given, if at all, and some of the sex scenes definitely resemble rape.
  • Quicksand Sucks: Naoh falls victim to this on the way to the Ivaka settlement, as do Amouker and Gaw when they go looking for him.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: What the Wagabu do to the Ulam at the beginning, minus the burning as they have no fire (in fact, fire is what they're looking to pillage).
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: All "dialog" is spoken in a fictional proto-language, which the viewer has to interpret from gesture and context.
  • Rescue Romance: Naoh protects Ika from the Kzamm tribe, then Ika falls in love with him.
  • Savage Piercings: The Kzamm wear bones through their nostrils.
  • Savage Wolves: Several Ulam survivors are overpowered and killed by wolves as they flee from the Wagabu.
  • Scared of What's Behind You: The Kzamm aren't frightened by Amouker's Intimidation Demonstration, they're afraid of the herd of mammoths behind him.
  • Scenery Porn, Real-Place Background, Shoot the Money: The film was shot in Canada, Scotland, Iceland, and Kenya, leading to some gorgeous shots.
  • Setting Update: The film curiously moves the story forward in time from 100,000 years ago to 80,000 years ago with zero impact on the plot.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Barely averted. The trio go through hell to get fire, only for the tribe to accidentally douse it when they return home. Fortunately Ika knows how to make it herself.
  • Silence is Golden: This is essentially a silent film, with the only dialogue spoken in fictional prehistoric languages.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Ika is the only named female character in the film.
  • Super-Persistent Predator: The sabre-toothed cats wait under the tree for the trio to fall, long after any real predator would give up.
  • Slurpasaur: As stated above, the aforementioned sabre-toothed cats are played by trained lions with prosthetic teeth and painted on stripes.
  • Tap on the Head: Amouker and Gaw do this to Naoh and several Ivaka men.
  • Tribal Carry: The Ulam trio are carried into the Ivaka settlement this way. Ika and her mate are trussed up like this at the Kzamm camp.
  • Tribal Face Paint: All the Ivaka paint their faces, as well as the rest of their bodies.
  • Truth in Television: As mentioned under Artistic License Paleontology, this film got many things wrong, but it got quite a few things right as well:
    • It is now known that neanderthals and other archaic humans possessed the ability to use and make fire, but it is possible for this ability to be lost in a culture that does not have a system of writing or any other way of keeping records. Even in recent times, some hunter-gatherer cultures lack the knowledge to start fire and will maintain one continuous fire like the Ulam do in the film.
    • The film portrays multiple human species interacting and even interbreeding. This wasn't supported when the movie came out, but has now been found to be accurate. At least two species (the Neanderthals and the mysterious Denisovans) have left traces in the human genome. Neanderthal and Denisovan remains have been identified in southern Siberia and dated to about 50,000-40,000 (just before or around the time modern humans also moved into the area).
    • The method of fire-making depicted in the movie is 100% accurate. The fire-maker character is played by a Maasai tribesman who actually demonstrated the technique to the filmmakers and was persuaded to recreate it for the cameras.
    • All things considered, this film holds up better now than it did at the time of release.
  • Uncanny Valley Makeup: The makeup effects on the people works very well...too well. The Ivaka look almost like ghosts with their ash and clay-based body paint.