There are two Hollywood movies that did their homework and made diligent efforts to depict the times of earliest human migration in Eurasia. Both of them falter significantly in what might have been admirable additions to the movie record of the human journey. That being said, they are the best representations we have to date, so it becomes necessary for our marvelous modern brains to filter out what is reliably imagined and what is abject fantasy.

The general consensus at the turning of the millennium was that the Neanderthals had wandered the Eurasian landscape for several hundred thousand years before being displaced by the Cro-Magnon (Homo sapiens) in the period of 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. This would put Quest for Fire squarely in the Neanderthal time and long before the coming of the Cro-Magnon. The movie plays very loosely with this chronology. See notes on The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) below.

Quest for Fire  (1981)

Set in the world of caves 80,000 years ago, this film strives from its outset to capture the stark and brutal life of early humans in the millennia following their migrations from tropical climates.  It is based on a novel by J.H. Rosny, Sr. Special language forms were created by Anthony Burgess and patterns of movement and gesture were developed by Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape).  These animal-like humans live in a cold gray land where the possession of fire is the key to life.  A print prolog tells us that the people have not yet learned how to create fire, and must steal it from nature.  The film opens on a barren cave where a small nomadic band is living under the protection of a large fire tended in the opening to their cavernous home.  They are attacked by a group of less-human, ape-like marauders and are driven from their shelter.  One of their number carries an antler cage with embers in it, but in the course of their flight the fire is lost.  Three hunters are sent to find new fire.  They set off across a vast tundra, where they are menaced by lions.  Coming upon a band of horrific cannibals, they lay siege to their fire and are successful in liberating two trussed up victims and some flaming branches.  One of the victims, a girl (Rae Dawn Chong), who is far more appetizing than any other humans glimpsed on this landscape, follows along with them.  Carrying their fire in the horn cage, they begin their long trek back to their own band.  They are incapable of even rudimentary relationships beyond the demands of staying together.  Occasionally they mount the girl but it could not be called rape by the standards of the time.  She wanders off.

Following after her, they come upon a much more highly evolved tribe, living in rude huts and affecting ritual dress and masks.  One of the hunters is captured by these people and compelled to perform ritual copulation with some of the rotund women in the village.  Later, this hunter observes these people creating fire with friction.  We see the light dawn in his eyes.  The mime of comprehension is very well enacted.  Eventually, the hunter takes what he has learned and runs off.  The girl follows.  They rejoin the other two and continue on their way, occasionally running afoul of various hostile humans.  The girl and hunter take refuge in a cave and he is nearly killed by a bear.  In a last altercation, the hunters master the use of spear-throwers.  They manage to get the fire back to their clan, only to watch one of the excited greeters fall into the water and extinguish it.  The girl teaches her companions how to make fire with a friction stick.  The band begins a new stage of existence.  After a hot meal, the hunter sits with the girl beneath the full moon, stroking her pregnant belly and looking forward to a better life in a Homo sapien world.

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