The Fire War (movie, 1981)

The War of Fire is a Franco – Canadian prehistoric adventure film directed by Jean – Jacques Annaud , released in 1981 . It is an adaptation of the eponymous novel written in1909 by J.-H. Rosny senior .


At the Paleolithicthe tribe of Oulhamr knows the use of fire and knows how to preserve it but does not know how to produce it. The members of the Wagabu tribe invade the territory of the Oulhamr and a battle breaks out. The Wagabou are represented as wild animals close to animal life, covered with hair, which does not indicate that they are masters of advanced tools or fire, and whose language is obviously very rudimentary. Nevertheless, they are the ones who win with the advantage of numbers, their brutal strength and their strategic ruses. A handful of Oulhamr managed to escape, leaving the wounded on the way. The guardian of the home also fled with a little fire (the rest was stolen by the Wagabou), but after finding the survivors of the tribe, the incandescent little embers finally fade. Without fire, they are condemned to die of cold and hunger. The Oulhamr do not want to return tocannibalismand they decide to send two groups in search of fire (search full of danger): Naoh ( Everett McGill ), Amoukar ( Ron Perlman ) and Gaw ( Nameer El-Kadi ) on the one hand, Aghoo the hairy and his 2 brothers, on the other hand. During their journey, they will encounter several species of wild beasts, including saber-toothed tigers , as well as other primitive species of human beings.

Finally, in their exploration, the trio of Oulhamr enters the territory of Kzamm, a tribe that does not disdain to capture members of the tribe of Ivaka to eat. Despite their ignorance and brutality, the Kzamms are masters in the art of producing fire . Naoh manages to steal them, but he is hurt fighting against two of them. He joins Gaw and Amoukar. A young woman named Ika ( Rae Dawn Chong ), a prisoner Ivaka who fled with Naoh, joins them, seeking their protection.

One day, Ika realizes she is near her home. She tries to persuade the three Oulhamr to accompany her, but the absence of a common language or an instinctive mistrust impels them to continue their return to theirs. When Ika leaves them the next morning, Naoh feels very troubled because he can not help but think of her. He goes back, followed by Gaw and Amoukar despite their reluctance. Naoh leaves the others to scout in the village but is captured by the Ivaka.

At first, he is subjected to bullying and several forms of humiliation, but finally the Ivaka accept him and show him their techniques. Their tribe is the most advanced that is shown to us. They have arrived at the stage of art(painting on the body, huts, ornaments, primitive pottery ) and what is more important, they control the production of fire. When Naoh is taught how to light him, he feels himself transported with joy; his life is changed forever.

Worried, Gaw and Amoukar go in search of Naoh and are captured too. During the ordeal they are subjected to, they realize to their astonishment that one of those who participate in it is Naoh, who initially did not recognize because his body is now covered with paint like the Ivaka. During the night Gaw and Amoukar run away, knocking Naoh down to take him with them. Realizing that she loves Naoh, Ika follows the trio and helps her escape.

On the way back, the quartet must fight against a bear and Aghoo and his two brothers, remained close to the clan. Gaw is seriously injured in his fight against the animal, but he manages to escape. The other three members of the group find him and Amoukar carries him on his shoulders. When the battle begins with Aghoo and his brothers, the group uses several thrusters of spears stolen from Ivaka and thus rout their enemies, which shows the advantage there is to master new technologies.

As they are about to join the tribe of the Oulhamr, the one who was responsible for carrying the fire falls into the water, and the fire goes out. Naoh tries to light a new one using a few twigs, droppings and dry herbs. Several tries fail, but Ika takes things in hand, carefully rubbing together the dry twigs. As soon as a little embers are lit, the tribe feels so overwhelmed with joy that it remains silent. Finally, Ika and Naoh discover that Ika is pregnant with their child. Naoh caresses Ika’s belly as she looks at the bright color of the moon, letting viewers hope they may have a posterity and contemplate the future of human development through the combined help of science and technology .

The question of realism

displayThis section does not cite its sources enough (May 2018) .

The promotion of the film put forward that none of the situations and choice of the staging was contrary to the scientific knowledge of the time. However many points disagree, sometimes deep, with the data available at the time of the film’s making.

  • The action is located 80 000 years ago and combines non-contemporary human species in deciduous forests reminiscent of Europe. The Oulhamr (Oulhamr in the original novel by elder J.-H. Rosny ) and the Kzamm have anatomical features evoking Neanderthals and Ivaka evoke anatomically modern Men ( Homo sapiens ). There is the presence of another extinct species at this time (Wagabou, Homo erectus ).
  • The importance of fire as an agent of survival of the group that protects from the cold and keeps ferocious beasts away, is perhaps more akin to cliché and conditioned imagination than to prehistoric reality: the genus Homoappeared there are more than 3 Ma and her representatives survived without fire until – 400 000 years ago in a Europe with a milder climate.
  • Some argue that the very notion of war is an anachronism for the Paleolithic 1 .
  • The image associated with humans in the film is that of a gross animality, incommensurate with the image that the material productions and the attested productions of human groups from 80 000 years ago give us: ape-like gesture and gesture ( bipedalism is more than 3 million years old!), lack of attention for the dead (the first burials are 100,000 years old), lithic tools practically nonexistent, animal reflexes (the heroes drool when they see the game go by far) .
  • Paradoxically, one of the rare attempts to humanize the Oulhamr, the disgust towards anthropophagy , is not acquired since it is attested throughout the Paleolithic and beyond, even if its practice was not generalized.
  • The Ivaka use the propellant, which is attested only since the Solutrean (-22,000 / -17,000 years).
  • Finally, the elements concerning social relations and brutal male domination are obviously not supported by any scientific argument.

While the Fire War has led the general public to take an interest in prehistory, it has also contributed to the perpetuation of many unfounded photographs as well as a poor image of prehistoric human groups, still anchored in a form of bestial pre-humanity. . Some of the major stages of human evolution are brought back to the chronological scale of a group of individuals: discovery of the cooking of meat by a piece of meat forgotten in the ashes all night; discovery of exogamywhen a protagonist is taken prisoner to impregnate the women of a clan; “Discovery” of the face-to-face position during the sexual act; development of humor (the two episodes of the pebble received on the head); refusal of cannibalism; discovery of medicine (with a mixture of herbs); problematic of the transmission or production of fire, etc. If this process of condensation of facts that has led to major discoveries for the evolution of man is a classic of prehistoric fiction 2 , it remains far removed from the reality perceived through current scientific knowledge. Most of the processes in question are gradual and much more complex.

It should be remembered that the Fire War is a work of fiction that should not be used in the context of popular science or teaching, even if it is conventional to condense and romanticize facts to make them understandable .

Technical sheet

  • Original French title: La Guerre du feu
  • English title: Quest for Fire
  • Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud , assisted by Dominique Cheminal
  • Scenario: Gérard Brach , from the homonymous novel of J.-H. Rosny Elder , The Fire War
  • Director of photography: Claude Agostini
  • Costumes: Penny Rose , John Hay
  • Special Makeup: Christopher Tucker , John Caglione
  • Editing: Yves Langlois
  • Music: Philippe Sarde
  • Advisors: Anthony Burgess for the language, Desmond Morris for the behavior
  • Production: Vera Belmont for Belstar Production , Jacques Dorfmann for Stéphan Films (France); Denis Héroux and John Kemeny for Famous Players , International Cinemedia Center Ltd. , Royal Bank of Canada and Ciné Trail (Canada)
  • Distribution Company: AMLF , Astral Films
  • Budget: $ 12,500,000 (estimate)
  • Duration: 96 minutes (1h36)
  • Genre: prehistoric movie , adventure
  • Release dates:
    •  France :
    •  Canada :
    •  United States :


  • Everett McGill : Naoh
  • Ron Perlman : Amoukar
  • Nameer El-Kadi : Gaw
  • Rae Dawn Chong : Ika
Oulhamr Tribe
  • Gary Schwartz: Rouka
  • Naseer El-Kadi: Nam
  • Franck-Olivier Bonnet : Aghoo
  • Jean-Michel Kindt: Lakar
  • Kurt Schiegl: Faum
  • Brian Gill: Modoc
  • Terry Fitt: Hourk
  • Bibi Caspari: Gammla
  • Peter Elliott: Mikr
  • Michelle Leduc: Matr
  • Robert Lavoie : Tsor
Ivaka tribe
  • Mohamed Siad Cockei: Ota Otarok
  • Tarlok Sing Seva: Tavawa
  • Lolamal Kapisisi: Firemaker
  • Hassannali Damji: the old man in the tree
Kzamm tribe
  • Antonio Barichievich
  • Jacques Caron
  • Adrian Street
  • George Buza
Wagabu tribe
  • Rod Bennett
  • Jacques Demers
  • Michel Drouet
  • Michel Francoeur
  • Charles Gosselin
  • Bernard Kendall
  • Benoit Levesque
  • Joshua Melnick
  • Jean-Claude Meunier
  • Alex Quaglia


Source: Internet Movie Database 3


  • César 1982 : best film and best director
  • Saturn Awards 1982: Best International Film
  • Oscar 1983 : best makeup
  • Genie Awards 1983 : best actress for Rae Dawn Chong , best costumes for John Hay, best sound editing, best sound
  • BAFA 1983 : best makeup and hairstyles


  • César 1982 : best original screenplay or adaptation for Gérard Brach , best music for Philippe Sarde , best photography , best decorations
  • 1983 Genie Award : Best Film, Best Actor in Foreign Film for Ron Perlman
  • Golden Globes 1983 : best foreign language film

Around the film

displayThe sections “Anecdotes”, “Other details”, “Did you know? “,” Quotations “,” Around … “, etc. , may be inappropriate in articles  (August 2014) .

A first film adaptation of J.-H. Rosny Elder was realized in 1914, by the actor and director Georges Denola 4 .

The film is initially a French-Canadian co-production, taking advantage of the new Canadian federal tax regulations of that time. Other American and European productions will be added.

The Oulhamr language spoken by members of the three tribes of Homo sapiens was invented by linguist Anthony Burgess ( The Mechanical Orange ). Even though the dialogues are not intelligible, they have been thoughtfully designed. Anthony Burgess started from the idea that the multitude of current languages would come from very few languages that would be a fusion. The dialogues of the film are then conceived from a language invented by Burgess bringing together English, French, Italian, Portuguese …

The music of Philippe Sarde has a great importance in the dramaturgy of the film, it brings the epic side and adventure and covers the film almost entirely. Recorded in London at the Abbey Road studio by the London Symphonic Orchestra (LSO) in full force, to which are added the Percussions de Strasbourg (6 + 3 percussionists, a choir of 35 singers, Michel Sanvoisin 5 on the recorder and Syrinx 6 to the pan flute.

The fire war is a big global success. Success in the United States: 7.13 million admissions (20,959,585 USD 7 , 8 , 9 from 1982 to $ 2.94 per ticket 10 ) or according to the IMDB website, with 67.4 million USD 11 , between 8.61 million admissions if the figure is corrected for inflation and 22.93 million admissions if not adjusted for inflation.

Notes and references

  1. ↑ Laurence Keeley in Prehistoric wars (Editions du Rocher) believes instead that the conflict hunter gatherers were more deadly than our modern wars.
  2. ↑ see eg Why I ate my father of Roy Lewis , Actes Sud, 1990.
  3. ↑ (en) Distinctions [ archive ] on the Internet Movie Database
  4. ↑ ” ” The War of Fire “(1914), film by Georges Denola, according to the novel by J.-H. Rosny Elder ”  [ archive ] (accessedMarch 20, 2015 )
  5. ↑ Michel Sanvoisin [ archive ] on IMDB.
  6. ↑ Syrinx [ archive ] official website.
  7. ↑ [ archive ]
  8. ↑ [ archive ]
  9. ↑ [ archive ]
  10. ↑ [ archive ]
  11. ↑ [ archive ]

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