Director: Vincent Ward
Screenplay: Geoff Chapple, Kely Lyons, Vincent Ward
Starring: Bruce Lyons, Chris Haywood, Hamish McFarlane, Marshall Napier, Noel Appleby
Duration: 90 min
Country: Australia/New Zealand
BBFC Certification: PG
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey is the second film by New Zealand writer/director Vincent Ward. Released in 1988, it was from this film that he was offered the job of writing and directing Alien 3. Famously, Ward pitched an idea that found Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley arrive on a medieval-style partially wooden space station populated by monks. Ward wrote the script and sets were built, but eight months later the studio got cold feet and feared that his vision was too daringly original. With the producers slowly watering down his concept with the aim of producing a more standard sci-fi film, Ward walked away from the project only to make 3 more films over the next 30 years.
The Navigator opens with a visual sequence moving between black & white and then colour images of fire and water, church spires and hooded medieval men – sound tracked by the chanting of what sounds like monks. It soon becomes apparent that we are sharing a vision witnessed by Griffin (Hamish McFarlane), a young boy living in a small Cumbrian mining village in the 14th century. The village has so far managed to escape being infected by the Black Death that is spreading across Europe and England, but Griffin’s vision foretells that death is coming to his village.
Griffin convinces a handful of men, including his brother Connor (Bruce Lyons), that they need to tunnel deep into the earth to reach the far side of the world. Once there, they need to make a cross from copper and affix it to the highest church steeple as a tribute to God so he will spare the village. The group successfully tunnel through the earth and emerge in 20th century Auckland.
Moving between the 14th and 20th centuries, using black & white and colour to differentiate between the two eras, The Navigator finds the medieval men steadfastly attempting to complete their mission. Upon arriving in modern-day New Zealand, Ward intelligently resists the temptation to play the group’s encounters with modern technology for laughs. For our heroes, crossing a busy road with huge roaring beasts speeding past them is the most perilous mission they have ever undertaken. There are many memorable scenes such as Griffin’s surreal encounter with a row of televisions in a window display and Connor moving terrified through a scrap yard, monstrous cranes screaming and clawing around him.
Ward was determined to imbue the film with as much historical accuracy as possible, so the main characters speak with thick Cumbrian accents and use some of the archaic language of the time, which can lead to straining to understand some of the dialogue. This authenticity has since been used by other filmmakers, most noticeably in recent films A Field in England and The Witch.
The plot of visitors from the past arriving in the modern day has been done many times before in print and on film, but Ward has used this as a jumping off point to explore questions about faith and duty. Interestingly, although they have a couple of terrifying encounters, the 14th century travellers never allow their curiosity to deviate them from their mission. Maybe their fear of God and the oncoming Black Death drives them more than their interest in the newly found strange world.
The Navigator will not be for everyone – its first act is heavily influenced by the artier tendencies of Bergman and Tarkovsky, which may have some viewers reaching for the remote, but the film settles into a more or less standard narrative, much in the same way that Nicholas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising does. The film is an extremely powerful, but complex piece of work that will stand up to multiple viewings. It is visually stunning with an outstanding soundtrack, which presents interesting analogies between the Dark Ages and the 1980s – especially comparison between the onset of AIDS and the Black Death.
Once again Arrow Video have produced a really nice looking transfer to Blu-ray. There is some grain in the black & white sequences, but the colour sequences are remarkably vibrant. The presentation shows very little signs of age related wear and tear, and as such you could quite easily believe the film was made in the past couple of years, as opposed to three decades ago.
I cannot recommend The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey enough. It is an entertaining and thought provoking film that will hopefully gain wider exposure with this new release on Blu-ray.
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey is released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video and includes the following extras:
• Brand-new appreciation by film critic Nick Roddick
• Kaleidoscope: Vincent Ward – Film Maker, a 1989 documentary profile of the director made for New Zealand television
• Theatrical trailer