La guerre du feu

Synopsis: Set 80,000 years ago, this accomplished “cinematic spectacle” (‘New York Magazine’) follows the lives of four tribes of early man – each with their own customs and stages of development. As they all face perilous terrain, human rivals and savage predators, one peaceful tribe searches for the element that will bring comfort and safety to all of mankind: fire. While celebrating human drama, this stunning film, shot on location in Scotland, Iceland, Canada and Kenya, also offers fascinating insights into prehistoric man’s survival.


La guerre du feu 9.25

eyelights: its concept. its execution. its performances.
eyesores: the integration of the wildlife footage. its hyperbolic score.

“80,000 years ago, man’s survival in a vast uncharted land depended on the possession of fire.”

I’m a fan of Jean-Jacques Annaud; though he’s not a household name, he’s made some of my favourite films of all-time. I first discovered him in the early ’90s with the tremendous murder mystery ‘The Name of the Rose‘, starring Sean Connery. I’m also love ‘L’Ours’ and ‘L’Amant‘.

But it’s ‘La Guerre du feu’ which has captivated me the most.

The 1981 motion picture, which won a few prestigious awards (including the 1982 Césars for Best Film and Best Director) takes us 80,000 years back in time on an adventure like none other: a group of three friends journey into the wild in order to find fire for their displaced tribe.

In their travels, they escape sabretooth tigers, encounter cannibals, rescue a couple of prisoners, befriend woolly mammoths, discover a more advanced civilization, survive a bear attack and fight off their rivals. It’s a picture rich in adventure, action, sex and even comedy.

It’s based on the eponymous 1911 novel by J.-H. Rosny aîné, an influential Belgian science fiction author whose works were published even before H.G. Wells’ and who inspired such literary legends as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Richard Matheson. It’s his most well-known book.

What’s fascinating about this picture is that the filmmakers chose to make a feature film with an unintelligible language (famed author and linguist Anthony Burgess was hired to invent the tribes’ dialogues), and yet managed to keep the result accessible and fully decypherable.

It’s all in the power of its images; ‘La Guerre du feu’ is pure cinema.

Much of the picture was shot in long takes and Annaud’s eye for composition is nothing short of masterful; he made great use of its diverse natural settings. The trio’s travels seem grandiose, epic, even though it’s set in a time that’s relatively barren (by modern standards).

It’s a motion picture that transports, engages and moves its audience.

Of course, part of the credit has to go to the actors, who were able to make their characters’ intentions and emotions easy to understand; their non-verbal is so precise and relatable that it’s unmistakable. Even though the characters are primitive people, we’re able to connect.

Ron Perlman is particularly good as Amoukar, Naoh’s sidekick – an imbecile with heart. Perlman was spectacular at taking on ape-like mannerisms, even in simple glances. I’ve seen those looks in wildlife footage and I’m always amazed to see him recreate them so accurately.

Everett McGill is also excellent as Naoh, our group’s leader, though he’s more subdued than his two counterparts in order to make Naoh more of an “everyman”. McGill has this amazing moment when Noah is shown how to make fire and his mind is blown – you see it all in his face!

Nameer El-Kadi is also pretty good as Gaw, the last of our trio, but he’s mostly there for comic relief; Gaw’s the most imbecilic of the three. They’re later joined by Rae Dawn Chong as Ika, a spritely and vibrant female from another tribe; Chong is basically immersed in the part.

The picture was shot on location in various countries and it’s impressive the way that the filmmakers recreated the era credibly, including long-extinct wildlife. Given that there was no CGI in 1981, and that the picture wasn’t exactly a Hollywood production, it’s a remarkable feat.

On top of that, everything was shot live, with no post-production optical effects.


There has been plenty of criticism about the picture’s realism; it’s frequently anachronistic, blending eras, species and behaviours together for the sake of its tale. Though our understanding of the era has improved since, even by 1981 standards it’s considered mildly inaccurate.

Having said this, one counter-argument is that cinema frequently tweaks the facts in its retelling of even modern events. This is done to streamline stories, removing excess characters and events so that the story can be told coherently in two hours. It’s done for the audiences’ sake.

The same could be argued here.

In any event, though it’s scientifically and historically inconsistent, the filmmakers were bringing to life a novel from the turn of the century, well before our modern understanding of the era. The book was a work of fiction and the movie is a reflection of it; it’s not a documentary.

And, as a motion picture, regardless of its recognized inaccuracy, it’s a masterpiece. Annaud and company were able to put to screen a story that could easily have been unfilmable. In lesser hands, it could have become one of those many ridiculous prehistoric-era B-movies.

It’s anything but.

Frankly, it deserves its accolades.

If I had any criticism to make, any at all, it would strictly be on a technical level: I found that the wildlife footage didn’t always cut together neatly; it didn’t look like the actors were anywhere near the tiger, for instance. And the score was far too intrusive for my taste.

Otherwise, though, ‘La Guerre du feu’ is a fascinating, near-perfect motion picture. It’s one of my all-time favourites – in the top ten, if not top five. It’s a masterwork by Jean-Jacques Annaud. It’s beyond me that it’s not being celebrated more now; it appears to be forgotten.

But it richly deserves to be rediscovered.

Date of viewing: November 25, 2017

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