Summer Weekend Review: Quest for Fire (1981)

We’ve been reviewing older films on the weekend, suited to summer viewing, and the first three weeks have seen Hollywood’s most famous depictions of our primitive ancestors, One Million BC and One Million Years BC. Those films feature dinosaurs and serious camp appeal; 1981 saw a serious attempt at the subject, and took its inspiration from a 1911 novel.

Title: Quest for Fire

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud
Written by Gérard Brach, from the novel by J.H. Rosny Sr.

Everett McGill as Naoh
Ron Perlman as Amoukar
Nicholas Kadi as Gaw
Rae Dawn Chong as Ika
Gary Schwartz as Rouka
The Great Antonio as Kzam Tribesman
Lolamal Kapisisi as Firemaker


After a primitive tribe’s fire goes out, three members head on a quest, seeking new flames.

High Point:

The beautifully-shot film gets points for attempting to seriously depict our primitive ancestors, without the presence of dinosaurs or gratuitous exploding volcanoes. Its attempts to stylize the development of human culture seem acceptable (if occasionally silly). Some my balk at the fact that every single tribe, lost world-like, represents a different human species; not all of these groups would have overlapped at the same time. Nevertheless, the technique makes the tribal groups easy to identify– even if one cannot always easily discern which species each group represents.

Low Points

Several events appear to happen because the script requires them. When Noah gets captured by Ika’s tribe, his companions wait around for a fair length of time for no clear reason, before simply barging into the village. Later, an attacking bear proves remarkably ineffectual, even remaining in its cave when the human prey exits.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 The film adapts a novel, and this film parallels earlier “cave-man movies,” most notably One Million BC and One Million Years BC, with its Stone Age star-cross’d lovers (and in every film, the female comes from the more civilized tribe). Nevertheless, of the two attempts in the 1980s to make a serious film about primitive humans, this was first and best.

Effects: 5/6 The attempts to turn Indian elephants into mammoths look a little shabby, but overall, the film does a decent job creating prehistoric animals that actually coexisted with our ancestors.

Production: 5/6 Quest for Fire features excellent make-up and some spectacular moments of visual poetry, using natural locations in Canada, Iceland, Kenya, and Scotland.

Acting: 5/6 Ron Perlman and Rae Dawn Chong make for inspired casting, and the film features a few genuinely touching moments between Chong’s Ika and McGill’s Naoh.

Story: 4/6

Emotional Response: 5/6

Overall: 5/6 The movie may not be as much insane fun as its most immediate predecessor, One Million Years BC (there were a few other films about primitive humans between these two, but none that received anything like their levels of popularity), but it proves a more satisfying film.

In total, Quest for Fire receives 32/42.

2 replies on “Summer Weekend Review: Quest for Fire (1981)”

    • Excellent– though I find it hard to believe (as per the Netflix ad) the adventuring party were intended to be “Cro-Magnon.” They appear to be far more primitive. But, as I said, it is really hard to tell what species any given tribe represents in this film (save for Ika’s).

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