For some reason Quest For Fire (1981) was one of the first movies I bought on DVD, and ever since I’ve had a hard time convincing people to watch it with me and I don’t understand why. It’s set 80,000 years ago. It was directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and adapted from J.H. Rosny aîné’s novel by frequent Polanski collaborator Gérard Brach, with everybody speaking pre-historical lingo created by Anthony Burgess. It inspired a song by Iron Maiden and a band from Toronto. It was filmed in Iceland, Scotland, Kenya, and in the badlands of Alberta where I once roamed as a boy, and its landscapes are beautiful and vast.
There are various tribes in Quest For Fire, representing various stages of man’s evolution. The story follows a trio of Neanderthals who, not knowing how to build a fire, go out in search of one they can steal and bring back to their friends. The Neanderthals resemble an especially hirsute hippie desert death cult whose members drank the Kool-Aid and lived, except that in doing so they lost the capacity to form sentences, seem permanently stoned, and are now forced to constantly breathe through their mouths. Violence is everywhere, and women have it especially tough: rape is a casual occurrence. But we see our heroes improvise peace summits with wooly mammoths and fend off a bear. Ron Perlman (in a role that would threaten him with a strange sort of typecasting) discovers the humour in head injuries. Edmontonian Rae Dawn Chong invents the missionary position. One guy attempts to castrate another with his teeth. Everyone’s always panting, crying, salivating, jabbing, screaming, pointing, humping, waddling, running, grunting: being an actor in this movie would have been awesome. In fact several sequences are very much like some acting workshops I’ve attended.
My special fondness for Quest For Fire probably can’t be entirely explained, but I always visit museums of natural history in every city I pass through (I love the dioramas), and my favourite part of 2001 (1968) by far was always the ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence, so perhaps some part of me just instinctively responds to tribal frenzy, inarticulate yearning, and unkempt hair. Edmonton's Metro Cinema is showing Quest For Fire as part of their ‘Turkey Shoot’ series, but this is no turkey. It’s rich and fascinating, and, for obvious reasons, really, really funny.