Picks and Pans Review: Quest for Fire

updated 02/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Popular entertainment's portrayal of prehistoric man is usually of two varieties. In one, the cave dwellers inhabit a kind of antediluvian Club Méditerranée, where females who look like Playboy centerfolds run around in designer leopard skins and the males resemble all-pro linebackers. In the other version, primitive life is portrayed as a sitcom where Fred Flintstone or Ringo Starr banters with dinosaurs. This remarkable film, however, is different. Directed by Frenchman Jean-Jacques Annaud, whose Black and White in Color won the best-foreign-film Oscar in 1976, it is a serious attempt to re-create what early human life must have been like. It centers on a small tribe that loses its caves and its campfire to marauding enemies. (The premise is that before man learned to make fire, he had to preserve flames ignited by lightning.) The tribe leader, played by Everett McGill, spends the rest of the film trying to recover the fire. This is not a heroic adventure. McGill and his tribe are dirty, cold, hungry, tired, afraid. After the opening sequence, there is no narration and no subtitles. But McGill and the rest of the unknown cast—notably Rae Dawn Chong (daughter of comedian Tommy Chong)—do a marvelous job of communicating, using a crude language created by novelist Anthony Burgess and gestures devised by anthropologist Desmond Morris. There are excesses. At one point McGill and Chong triumphantly engage in new mating techniques, as if they have come upon a stone-tablet edition of The Joy of Sex. In another scene, McGill subdues a herd of mammoths simply by offering them grass. Overall, though, the mood is of suffering and indomitability, and it's convincing. If nothing else, this daring film will give you a new respect for those creatures who became us. (R)

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