Quest for Fire

Is there any actor alive as adaptable, yet as instantly recognizable, as Ron Perlman?

He can go from a hulking Homo neanderthalensis to an adult in a child’s body to a red-hued demon-with-a-heart, and still manage to convey the sensitivity under his characters’ rugged exteriors. He does so in English, French (which he doesn’t speak, but learned by rote for “City of Lost Children”), or even using no words at all, as he does in “Quest for Fire”.

Even more remarkable, his role in 1981’s “Quest for Fire” was his first film appearance, ever.

In it, he plays Amoukar, a member of the Neanderthal Ulam tribe. The tribe survives by keeping a fire perpetually burning; they rely on it for light, warmth, to cook their food, and as a source of power and comfort in the primitive darkness. Each night, the tribe’s flame-keeper collects its embers and tends to them so the fire may be re-lit the next day. But when a Homo erectus tribe (the Wagabu) attacks, the Ulam are scattered — and their fire is accidentally extinguished.

The tribe is devastated, but Amoukar and two of his tribe members are determined to persevere, and they set out for an hour-and-a-half-long, dialogue-free adventure.

The trio encounters woolly mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers, quicksand and cannibals. They fight in some surprisingly gory skirmishes with other tribes they come across. And they have sex. A lot of sex.

Back before the original attack, the Ulam only enjoyed rough and random penetration. But after meeting up with Ika, a female member of the Ivaka tribe of Homo sapiens sapiens, the tribe members learn about different types of sexual power exchange. Specifically, Ika teaches Naoh the missionary position. (And how to laugh. And later, how to make fire.)


(Side note: Naoh is played by Everett McGill, who’s Big Ed Hurley from Twin Peaks, the guy who wears flannel and runs the gas station and is married to Nadine, the redhead with the eyepatch and pink fluffy dress.)

It’s surprising how captivating a movie can be without dialogue, and how much humor the actors can convey with just their expressions and body movements. When one of the Ulam is sinking in quicksand, it’s more of a funny moment than a tense one. (And he’s eventually rescued, of course.) Ron Perlman has a great scene where he’s trying to gather a stack of corn husks, though they keep spilling out of his arms.

Wikipedia is careful to point out that the film does not adhere to contemporary paleoanthropology, as it’s an adaptation of a 1911 book, but even considering the possible factual errors it served our purposes pretty well, which was to lend context to the idea of humankind evolving from its earliest forms.

Skulls, from left to right: Homo sapiens (human), Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal man), and Homo erectus.
Photos by Pamela Gore, via this very informative site.

Mostly, the issue is that “[a]t no time was there a “triangular” constellation of neanderthalensis vs. erectus vs. sapiens. Homo erectus has died out before 100,000 years ago, and both neanderthalensis and sapiens are likely its descendant species.” (via)


The book was written in 1911, and the film was made in 1981. And to this very day, we’re still learning new facts about our predecessors. Scientists are working to fully map the Homo neanderthalis gene, and just this week there have been articles stating there may be evidence that cross-breeding did occur between groups of early humans — if not with the most likely candidate, the Neanderthal, then with another heretofore undiscovered variant of “archaic hominin”.

Surprisingly, there are only a handful of films that deal with pre-Homo sapiens sapiens species, a period which seems to me ripe for tales of human evolution, not just in body but in spirit and innovation. The Ulam’s journey to overcome their reliance on a single, stationary flame, and how they learn to control the root of their own survival, is a tale that doesn’t need spoken words to convey its message, and one that resonates through the ages.



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