Quest for Fire
(La Guerre du feu) (1981)
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * *

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Sometime in the prehistoric past, the members of a tribe of man's ancestors lose the fire they have been guarding and set out to find another. On their quest, they encounter groups both of man's closer and his more distant relatives.

Jean-Jacques Annaud's Quest for Fire is a distinctive, gorgeous, and enthralling film. The characters are wild and violent and their perspectives alien, but they emerge as fascinating individuals because of these very differences from the people of the modern world. Annaud manages to evoke a sense of some ancient time when man's survival from day to day was not assured. He makes the viewer feel the heroism of his primitive protagonists, and, by consistently setting the events of the narrative against backdrops of stunning natural beauty, all of which are marvelously filmed, he lends them an epic quality.

Although it may not be an accurate depiction of any ancient time, Quest for Fire is evocative of a harsh and primitive age. The central characters speak a language devised by Anthony Burgess, and, while not comprehensible, it does lend a certain veracity to the film. The director's presentation of the characters' motivations are, likewise, helpful in drawing the viewer into their distinctive world. Annaud depicts persons who are motivated by desires for sex, food, warmth, and survival, and who are fearful of the unknown and of the members of rival groups. They are also shown to have cultures, complete with religions, superstitions, taboos, and various customs. While these are often revealed only obliquely to the viewer because of the lack of understandable dialogue, their presence informs the central characters' behavior as well as that of the members of the societies with which they interact.

Annaud's primitive men are brutish and dirty. There is no Raquel Welch to be found among them nor any high minded ideals or acts of chivalry. The wild, alien protagonists of the film lead lives radically different from our own, but these very differences captivate us so that the uniqueness of Annaud's vision draws us into their world. Once we have thus entered into the movie's strange, distant lands, and engaged with its primitive inhabitants, the gulf dividing the world being evoked from our own so isolates our awareness in that other realm that we are swallowed up by it and come to feel all the sufferings, joys, and bravery of the movie's ancient heroes with a remarkable intensity.

Annaud has created a film unlike any other. It is certainly well worth watching.

Review by Keith Allen

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