Jean-Jacques Annaud’s ‘Quest for Fire’ gets wonderful treatment on DVD

Rae Dawn Chong in 'Quest for Fire'
Rae Dawn Chong in ‘Quest for Fire’

What do Hellboy, a cavity search by London police, and two wooly mammoths running through suburbia have in common? They are all in some way directly connected to one of the most original motion pictures ever made — Quest for Fire (alternate title: “La Guerre du Feu”). Though practically forgotten today, Quest broke box office records at New York’s Ziegfeld and LA’s Cinerama Dome theaters when it premiered in February, ‘82, beating out the previous record-holder, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Having already established himself with his Oscar-winning debut feature, Black and White in Color (Best Foreign Language Film, 1977), director Jean-Jacques Annaud enjoyed his second world-wide hit with the remarkable Quest for Fire, the director’s sophomore effort. Audiences were drawn by Annaud’s stated ambition to make the definitive prehistoric fantasy adventure. Before it opened, word was out that best-selling author and anthropologist Desmond Morris helped craft the period-specific gestures and body language seen in the film. Viewers looked forward to seeing the clever, prehistoric language created by world-famous author Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange). What audiences didn’t expect was an historically-based drama that played like a thoroughly rousing adventure.

Quest would go on to win two Cèsar Awards (Best Picture and Best Director), a BAFTA and Academy Award for make-up, The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Film Award for Best International Film and many other nominations.

Set 80,000 years in the past, Quest takes us back to a time when one thing mattered above all things to man — fire. As the opening text explains, “The tribe that possessed fire possessed life.” Without it, death was certain.

From its opening shot, Quest draws us in, panning an unforgiving landscape to reveal a single flame winking in the distance. No sooner are we introduced to the Ulam — a clan of ragged homo sapiens encamped beside the fire — than the primitives are set upon by Neanderthals. Little match for their attackers, the surviving Ulam scatter, regrouping on a slip of land in a swamp that’s surrounded by ravenous wolves.

Carrying what’s left of their precious fire in a crude bone lantern, our shivering ancestors see their only hope for survival dashed when the flame’s last ember dies in the boggy air. Watching the tattered humans huddle against the cold, it’s hard to imagine how such a fragile race of beings ever escaped extinction, let alone survived their first winter.

As Ulam begin dying around him, the clan’s elder statesman pulls three men aside, instructing them to venture into the world and “find” fire, thus saving the tribe. However naïve, the first steps of the trio’s journey feels unimaginably brave.

Before I go any further, it’s important to note that Quest is not your father’s caveman flick. If you like your prehistoric tales served with bikini-ed femfatales and square-jawed he-men, turn back now! What separates this film from cheesier efforts like Clan of the Cave Bear and One Million Years B.C. is Quest’s stab at anthropological accuracy. Accurate or imagined, the film’s details feel wholly authentic. The moment-to-moment aspects of prehistoric life are refreshingly unpleasant here. It’s a world of rotting teeth, gross meals, unglamorous animal hide tunics, and zero hygiene. Yet within this unpleasant arena, Quest manages to weave one of the most thrilling, laugh-out-loud funny, and original adventures you’re likely to see.

Composer Philippe Sarde, with over 200 credits to his name, was at the top of his game when he scored Annaud’s film. Combining traditional African instruments with a full orchestra, Sarde evokes the glory and fragility of early man’s first days. It’s a testament to the film’s delicate telling that Sarde builds the majority of his score around a love theme; it’s a wonderful melody, alternately delicate and grand, that harkens back to the classic scores of Steiner and Gerhardt in its most passionate moments. Unfortunately, Sarde’s masterwork is no longer in print, and can only be found in its original LP format… if you’re able to dig up a collector online. A great loss, that.

The 20th Century Fox DVD transfer is sumptuous. And for movie lovers sick of Hollywood’s see-me C.G.I., Quest is gloriously free of any special effects beyond its award-winning make-up. Shot entirely on location, Quest manages to seamlessly blend landscapes as disparate as Kenya, Scotland and Canada into a single, organic environment.

Everett McGill shines as the trio’s uncertain leader, Noah (pronounced, NO). It’s a performance so wonderfully nuanced that it takes repeated screenings to fully appreciate the actor’s craft. Ron Pearlman (Hellboy) and Rae-Dawn Chung (Commando) made their screen debuts in the film. For Pearlman, Quest was the first in a long line of heavily made-up characters that would become his stock in trade (The Name of the RoseBeauty & the Beast for TV). It’s Pearlman’s comic brute that nearly steals the movie. Seventeen-year-old Chung, who had never considered acting before the film, was a family friend of Annaud’s producer when the director spotted her on a beach. Soon after, Annaud cast her as the film’s pivotal character, Ika (pronounced, EE-ka). Nameer Al-Kadi, playing the smallest of the fire-seeking trio, rounds out the cast nicely, and shares some of the film’s biggest laughs with Pearlman, the two generously rotating the roles of comic and foil between them.

Each performer is memorable, but it’s Chung’s Ika that lingers. It’s Ika, painted from head to toe, that brings to the adventure its most unexpected element — poignancy. Despite indirectly saving her from cannibals, the trio wants nothing to do with the little, blue female at first. Pleading and patient, Ika eventually joins the trio, sparking a romance with Noah.

After a brutal assignation (the film earns its R rating!), the two develop a bond. As fate would have it, Ika’s sophistication could prove the key to the Ulam’s salvation, if only our boys can keep up. In one of many memorable scenes, a stone rolls off a hillside and bounces off Pearlman’s head. When Ika laughs spontaneously, her companions are startled, not knowing what to make of her behavior. An elliptical scene charts Ika’s influence on her companions when the foursome is finally able to share a laugh together. My only complaint with the DVD came when Ika cries in her village — a heartbreaking moment in theaters. In this scene, Chung’s tears are all but lost in this small screen format, despite the DVD’s high resolution.

Over 3 hours of extras include a feature-length commentary by Annaud with the director walking us through the ordeal of getting Quest made. Annaud also recounts how he was subjected to a humiliating cavity search in London when police grew suspicious of his frequent flights between continents during preproduction, and how two of the elephants used in the woolly mammoth sequence saw each other in costume for the first time and ran terrified from their tents… and into the streets of suburban Manchester.

A second commentary track features actors Pearlman and Chung with producer Michael Gruskoff. Though Annaud claims in his commentary not to remember a single complaint from his actors, Pearlman and Chung roll out a laundry list of issues they had — and expressed — during the brutal production. Pearlman and McGill, we’re told, still suffer from the affects of the frostbite they contracted on the production.

Annaud also narrates a series of production stills, storyboards, location pics and publicity images in the scrapbook portion of the extras. Frustratingly, there is no option to “play all,” so viewers are forced to toggle through these categories individually. A Making-of doc is narrated with such ham by the late Orson Wells, one wonders if he took any aspect of the project seriously. For all of their sincerity, Desmond Morris and Anthony Burgess just come off as silly when they posit their contributions as “how it would have been.” I can only hope my memory’s that good when I’m 80,000 years old.

Annaud’s latest film, Two Brothers, opens June 25th.

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