Mailbag: Quest for Fire

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Night before last I was flipping channels and Quest For Fire was on one of the cable stations. I did not see it when it first came out but vaguely remember a Playboy spread about it. It was amazingly awful although the cinematography was good. It seemed to me, by the score and people involved in making it, that it was meant to be taken seriously at the time. Do you know if it was supposed to be considered true-to-life when it first came out? The (what I assume were) Neandertals acted mostly like chimps, even walking with that rolling gait. Except when they forgot to. The Homo Sapiens talked and laughed a lot and had some nifty pottery that would have rivaled modern forms out of New Mexico. There were even Australopithecines that attacked the Neandertals. They looked and acted like the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. So almost our entire line was present all in the same place! I have seen references in your blog entries to Quest For Fire, but I started wondering as I watched it, what was the maker's purpose at the time?

Yes, it was a serious movie – it won Best Picture in the French version of the Oscars and was nominated for Best Foreign Film in the Golden Globes. Jean-Jacques Annaud is what you’d call an “artiste” director, his next film after this was The Name of the Rose. Those awful Neandertal get-ups won an Academy Award, which has cursed us with bad makeup direction for thirty years.

The movie really sucks. It’s nominally a “science fantasy” – so those australopithecine-like things can show up, and they can shrug off other inaccuracies. I find it’s like an extended Hobbes – nasty, brutish and long!

It’s interesting to put it against that other movie, Clan of the Cave Bear. Quest for Fire (the French title is “War of Fire”, which puts rather a different spin on it, I find) is consistent. It lacks the melodramatic elements of Clan. It’s not so much that Quest makes Neandertals look ugly, it also makes their lives depressing. Which Jean Auel didn’t do – her Neandertal society was more recognizably human, despite their many differences from the “modern” humans.