Is it possible to love both these movies? I know I do. Quest for Fire is an intellectual movie about early mankind, with no understandable dialogue and then unknown actors. Caveman has Ringo Starr throwing a dwarf into a giant pool of dinosaur ca-ca. They both came out in 1981, the same year that Mel Brooks made fun of cavemen in History of the World Part I. It was a good year to be a caveman, probably the best until Geico came along.
Quest for Fire is by Jean-Jacques Annaud, who also directed The Bear; he’s really good at films with little or no dialogue, and crafting a story without it. This story begins with a happy tribe of early man lazing around a fire after a feast, when they are attacked by a rival tribe of cannibalistic, and more primitive Neanderthals. They fight viciously, at one point driving a spear through the mouth of one of the marauders, but they lose and have to flee.
They take their fire with them but lose it, which can spell disaster, because they can’t make fire; they can only keep it and tend it. If you’ve ever tried to make a fire in the woods, you can sympathize with their plight.
Naoh, the leader, blows on an ember.
Three men are chosen to seek fire in the wilderness, whether to steal it from another tribe or find it naturally, and their adventure is the meat of the story. Ron Perlman is one of these nomads, and he’d appear later in Annaud’s adaptation of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, before he rose to stardom as that cat dude in Beauty and the Beast, and of course Hellboy. The movie is an intelligent version of 10,000 B.C.– there are sabretooth tigers, mammoths, tribes that are more advanced and tribes that are more brutish, rituals and discoveries, and Roland Emmerich isn’t there to make it stupid.
Sabre-tooth Ron Perlman
When they run into a pride of sabretooths, they climb a tree where they are stuck for days. The effects are really good for the time- they’re just lions with long teeth attached, but they sure look scary enough.
Later, when they are caught between a grazing mammoth herd and a tribe of Neanderthals, the leader crawls up and offers a mammoth a handful of grass, befriending it, so they are defended. That sounds really silly, but it works when you watch it. It’s a hell of a lot more likely than befriending a sabretooth.
They also come upon two mud-painted people tied to stakes by the Neanderthals- one of whom is missing an arm. I guess that’s the best way to keep meat fresh back in those days. They rescue them, and get a friend for life in Rae Dawn Chong, in an early role. The leader gets wounded in the crotch killing a Neanderthal, and she helpfully applies salve. She’s probably what those of us who were 12 when it came out remember best- she’s topless or nude for the entirety of the film, except for her tribal make-up. She’s also more advanced culturally than our caveman pals, speaking a language that neither they or we understand, but is definitely more familiar than the grunts they speak (Desmond Morris helped craft the languages).
There are more run-ins with cave bears, Neanderthals and other tribes who want to steal their fire; they also meet Rae Dawn’s tribe, who live on the mud flats around a swampland and seem to have a fertility cult going on. A big laugh for us at age twelve was when they cage our protagonist with one of their fertile Rubenesque maidens, and when he’s done he looks out and sees 4 more lined up. The film is full of funny little touches that usually make some sort of sense. Her tribe is all gangly and he is strong, so they want him for their string children. She escapes with him, since she has other plans for her man.
She introduces them to advances like spear-throwers (atlatls, actually), laughter, and the missionary position, in a very funny scene. Our leader finds himself growing attached to his new mate, instead of humping whatever ass popped up at the water hole. She decides to stay with him, as they bring fire back to his tribe. After nearly 2 hours of no talking, you find yourself riveted to the screen. There’s a fine mix of humor and action, and nothing breaks the spell- it’s a dirty, brutish life, and while a complete fantasy, it becomes utterly believable. In the tiny genre of movies set in prehistory, it’s got to be the most authentic and enjoyable. It’s certainly different, but I consider it a minor classic. I suppose I ought to compare it to Clan of the Cave Bear someday, but I try to only review good bad movies.
How I adore 80’s tagline humor.
And then you have Caveman with Ringo Starr, in his first major role since Help!. He plays Atouk, a lowly caveman in his tribe, a lone thinker in a group run by Tonda, a big goon. He pines for Lana, played by Barbara Bach, and who wouldn’t? She’s spilling out of a fur bikini the whole film. They also have their own language, but all I can remember is that Atouk wants to zug-zug Lana, so you can figure out what it means. The humor is mostly of the idiotic pee-pee poo-poo variety, but it’s still hilarious in an extremely campy way.
I’d zug-zug her too.
Atouk gets banished by Tonda after trying to zug-zug Lana, along with his pal Lar (Dennis Quaid, who gets to demonstrate the difficulties of peeing during the Ice Age, at one point) and the rest of the outcasts. These include a blind old man with a cane, a dwarf, a gay couple, an Asian dude, and a flat-chested cavewoman unfit for breeding (Shelley Long). The Asian guy speaks English, to explain the caveman words to the audience, proving that the Geico cavemen are more advanced than the average moviegoer.
They have many humorous adventures along the way. They topple a giant pterodactyl’s egg into a volcanic geyser and make a giant poached egg. They think they lose the dwarf in a giant pool of dinosaur shit, and dig through it looking for him. When he comes from behind a boulder after taking a piss, they throw him into it, and give us the immortal quote “Doo-doo! Ca-ca. Shit.”
They run into an abominable snowman in an ice cave who chases them around. My favorite is when the blind man stumbles on a huge dinosaur, and thinks it’s a tree. He does the usual blind man pantomime of feeling around for what he bumped into, and the dinosaur likes it quite a bit… get it, he’s rubbing dino dong! Then he whacks it with his cane in the dino-nuts, causing it to attack our little band of cave-dorks.
Blind man vs. T.Rex balls.
They also have a giant iguana after them. Atouk shows his brains, by feeding the beast some goofy berries that make you high. Previously he proved his superiority by cracking his back and standing upright, inventing music, and using fire to burn the asses of his enemies. Including one who runs away farting, which is especially funny when you’re 12.
Lighting farts came soon after the use of fire.
I may sound condescending, but it’s actually pretty hilarious to watch. The cast is really good and get into the act, defiling their every shred of dignity for our entertainment. By the end, when Atouk defeats Tonda and gets Lana, you’re actually rooting for Shelley Long when she pushes the busty babe into bronto bull-caca. There’s something wrong with that. Even Ringo married Lana and he’s still giving her the zug-zug, as far as I know.
With both these fine movies out there to entertain us, who needs Emmerich? It’s just a rehash of Stargate anyway, with pyramids and an ambiguously sexed tyrant. He hasn’t made a good movie since Independence Day, and that was just a remake of War of the Worlds. If you didn’t get enough disasterage in The Day After the Day Before Yesterday, he’s making a movie about the end of the Mayan calendar that includes volcanoes and such, because it ends in 2012. I wonder if he gets terrified when he finds out his Date Planner only goes to January 2009.
For the record, Rae Dawn Chong can apply salve to me anytime.