Awards include: Canadian Genie Award for Best Actress, Costume Design, and Film Editing; French Cesar Award for Best Film and Best Director; Oscar for Best Makeup; British BAFTA for Best Makeup
Based on the 1919 novel by J.H. Rosny, Sr., director Jean-Jacques Annaud decided to team up with prolific screenwriter Gerard Brach, and the two fused their intense interest in Ancient Man to create a remarkable film that became a favourite of critics, scientists, and audiences - actually breaking the house record set by "E.T." during its first theatrical run at the Ziegfeld Theatre, in NYC.
Brach's extensive work with Roman Polanski had already revealed the writer's keen interest in human emotions, and while the film follows the trek of three chosen warriors as they seek to capture and return a live flame to their tribe, the movie's real centre lies in the relationships between Man's primitive ancestors; the gist being that 80,000 years ago, the affection, companionship, war mongering and sexual interaction that separated humans from animals were already defining us as complex creatures.
In the actor's commentary track, Ron Perlman characterizes the project as an 'intellectual experience,' and voices surprise and pride that "Quest for Fire" slowly became a staple in high school classrooms around the world because of the intense research and production details used to create a rich depiction of ancient Man - I watched the film in a history class taught in French, so ironically I was part of that first generation who first saw the film in the nascent days of videotape.
Using a language developed by Anthony Burgess - himself fluent in twenty-five modern and regional languages - and physical behaviour conceptualized and directed by Desmond Morris, the cast went through six months of primal boot camp, and Annaud's serious hands-on approach guaranteed every production aspect would fit, as best as possible, the original mold created by the sympatico writer and director.
Annaud is unbelievably talkative; besides a few gaps in the last twenty minutes, his track covers developing the film's history that took about six years from idea to finished product. Several years were spent trying to raise sufficient capital, and when all seemed well with Fox, an actor's strike threatened to give the production a mortal blow. Moving from Japanese to Canadian and French investors, "Quest for Fire" came to life only after additional financing was ratified, with primary photography occurring in Canada.
Shot entirely on location, "Quest" was a long, nightmare shoot that required a cast and crew with incredible commitment. Actors endured five hour make-up sessions in the mornings, ran barefoot through forests and over volcanic rocks, trudged through near-freezing lake water with leeches, and had to wear appliances devised to enhance their existing bone structures. The animals were real, the cold was nasty, and a set designer contracted anthrax when he handled untreated animal skins.
Annaud also reveals much of the film consists of single takes from multiple camera set-ups - a daring approach that's hard to imagine any studio would live with, given the movie cost $15 million in 1980. There's a lot of information regarding the casting choices, training the actors, rehearsing methods, and the film's exceptional use of locations for seamless travel sequences, frequently combining shots from Canada, Scotland, and Kenya.
The secondary commentary track includes producer Michael Gruskoff, and actors Ron Perlman and Rae Dawn Chong, and though lacking a consistent flow of information, it's a modest contribution to the DVD's overall superb extras. There's repeated information, and the group takes a while to begin a few solid discussions, with much of the material limited to their roles, and the demands of each extreme location.
A vintage TV documentary, "The Quest for Fire Adventure," has been included from the archives, and is essentially a cigared Orson Welles hosting and narrating the film's story, with regular behind-the-scenes cutaways to locations, make-up sessions, animals, and a more youthful Annaud explaining the film's themes for a film characterized by gravel-voiced Welles as "Star Wars in reverse." Made in 1982, the full frame promotional doc also contains some footage of the pre-production training sessions with the actors - largely comprised of dancers and mimes - with Desmond Morris giving a fascinating explanation of his direction for the word "No."
Though shown without subtitles, the DVD includes a rather amusing English subtitle track with radical simplifications of the customized prehistoric vocabulary. Note: some players may have problems displaying the French and Spanish subtitles.
A montage of money shots set to pulsating synth music make up the film's original trailer, and Fox billed the film as the next filmic evolutionary step after "2001: A Space Odyssey." There's some obvious parallels between both films - the bleak locations, and primal Man's major light bulb moments - and like "2001," a highlight of "Quest" occurs as Man expands his knowledge by creating fire - a process enigmatically synthesized from a ten minute process.
Stills divided into fifteen galleries are accompanied by Annaud's non-stop commentary (totaling almost 49 minutes!), which adds more fine details to the film's production and exploitation, with many personal anecdotes. This is arguably the best part of the disc, because the stills also include small 'note to self' scribbles on the Polaroids (which Annaud reads and translates for us), and the "Burgess Dictionary" that includes a typed letter which, for those who can read French, reveals a personal account of Annaud's getting a call regarding an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, in 1977.
Other highlights include stunning stills from "Locations-Iceland" (which was initially proposed as the film's key location until a volcano made things touchy), some beautiful drawings by Desmond Morris in "Costumes," the 'Manchester Mammoth' tale in "Mammoths," jail time in "Behind the Scenes," Annaud's far too personal run-in with custom officials in "Production Shots," and the global publicity tour in "Promotion," which includes a cast snapshot with Montreal's charismatic mayor Jean Drapeau.
This is a great DVD package that beefs up the film's existing educational value with even more minutia.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan