How to make a film about primitive humans without falling into misconceptions or ridiculous assumptions? How to make it engagingly entertaining without turn it into a comedy? What language to use if any, where in the world would be shot? All these challenges, director Jean Jacques Annaud and his team faced successfully (in my opinion) when they gave us this serious and unique 1981 film based on the novel by J. H. Rosny.
With great photography by Claude Agostini of spectacular vistas from Scotland, Canada, and Kenya, and a clever musical score by Phillipe Sarde that fits this early life period, director Annaud used this as background for this challenging movie project. He also acquired the help of expert Desmond Morris, anthropologist, author of The Naked Ape, who provided all the primitive gestures of communication humans might have used during that time in history. Linguist Anthony Burgess (author of A Clockwork Orange) created the language specifically for the characters; everything else rests in the formidable acting and the imaginative story of the film.
When a primitive tribe is attacked by another, in their flight to survive, the attacked lose the precious flame used to warm their bodies, cook their food, and scare away the beasts that surround their dwellings. They don’t know how to create fire. They steal it from others or from nature. For this reason, the tribe’s leader commissions three of his best and smartest warriors to look for fire and retrieve it to their camp.
This way Naoh (Everett McGill), Amoukar (Ron Perlman) and Gaw (Nameer El-Kadi) begin a journey that takes them through grave dangers and brings them to the discovery they need for survival.
Through the depiction of their ordeal, we come to appreciate how our ancestors possibly expressed pain, humor, and affection in a primitive manner. Guided by a woman, Ika (Rae Daw Chong) from a more advanced tribe, Naoh begins to learn new things. Ika’s people know how to use better weapons, build huts, make love face to face, and laugh. But it’s when a man from her tribe shows Naoh how to make fire that he is overcome with emotion seeing the sparks, smoke, and the precious flame appearing. This key moment makes us realize how far we have come as a species and how far we still need to advance.
Other films by Jean Jacques Annaud I recommend: