In our new series we take a look back at Vincent Ward’s haunting and genre defying New Zealand cinema classic…
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey is the story of a group of 14th century Cumbrian villagers coming together to perform what seems to be a celestial moral duty to deliver their village from an outside threat. The third film from cult New Zealand director Vincent Ward, it can be seen as something of a vision quest steeped in Christian mythology, albeit one of a more esoteric and Celtic disposition.
Like the vivid rural bleakness of Ward’s previous film VIGIL (1984), The Navigator is firmly entrenched in the elemental world. Ward has expressed before his personal fascination in particular with fire, which takes a prominent role in illuminating the vast expanses of earth and water and sky that are laid bare in a primordial fashion as our group of protagonists experience a sense of awe and wonder after leaving the confines of their village to explore a new land.
The film can be viewed like an ancient prophetic poem, a statement that makes a lot more sense as the film unveils itself through a series of twists and turns. It’s a tale of brooding atavistic dark phantasms, a sense of twilight pervading the entire film. It’s hard to discern and seems to leave many questions deliberately unanswered to the delight or frustration of the viewer. Not solely an allegorical quest nor a symbolic one, it’s not the excruciating domain of magical realism either. No matter what happens on screen and what conclusions we may draw, it is the sense of the divine and unified purpose that the film evokes itself that binds it all together, any ambiguity just heightening the experience.
Indeed, this exalted atmosphere propels the film along on it’s otherworldly axis, the plot itself concerning a group of villagers in 1348 Cumbria who on a rising full moon follow the visions of a young boy called Griffin (Hamish McFarlane) to burrow through a chasm into the earth to ‘the other side of the world’ to raise a cross on the steeple of ‘…the biggest Church in all of Christendom..’ before sunrise. This act, according to the visions, will then grant them divine reprieve from the horrors of the plague that is ravaging the land and set to visit their village.
The other side of the world it turns out is 1988 New Zealand, our protagonists seemingly unaware of their apparent time travel upon making the journey. From the powerful monochromatic stark cinematography to the crossing over into colour as they make the transition, the simple technique works wonders here compared to it’s usage in many other films and brings together a sense of wonder and expansion, yet with a foreboding permeating their apparent discovery. A reminder that our venture is not one of casual tourism, but one of an essential nature, the modern world here being cast too in an elemental light by a series of images and symbols that seem to lie outside of the everyday and familiar. Taking copper ore with them to fashion the cross needed to complete their mission, they encounter three recently laid off foundry workers who will have to help them cast the cross and raise it on the steeple before sunrise.
The concept for those unfamiliar no doubt sounds very appealing and intriguing, but this is not some crude 1980’s fantasy trope based on anachronistic humour and the novelty of cultures divided across time colliding – they have first and foremost a duty to fulfil, and the film is about their role in that world foretold to them.
Neil gammon in his review for Blueprint magazine notes that: ‘the 14th century travellers never allow their curiosity to deviate them from their mission ‘ – it’s not about how they adapt to the modern world, but how their their faith is transferred into it. Following their impulses, we too as the audience find ourselves to a degree in the same boat as them – the characters in the film are not sure of what’s going on and neither are we. There’s a drawing of parallels between the ancient and modern world with the implication that some things despite the ages have not changed, how this is conveyed is poetic and is made all the more subtle through the use of certain symbolism as their unlikely allies try and help them finish their task. This is what separates the film and elevates it to something outside the canon of normal cinema, with it’s seemingly apparent message of overcoming cynicism and coming together to achieve something that transcends the ages.
The aforementioned Griffin whose visions guide them is the navigator of the films title and his visions persist after passing over into the realm of the modern world, letting them know the best course of action to take and to be wary of unholy deceptions in this unfamiliar land that could distract them from their quest, the tension mounting as they try to figure out how to raise the cross on the steeple before sunrise.
The stubbornly independent antics of Conner (Bruce Lyons) who Griffin looks up to is relayed with the myriad personalities of the group, who together form an amusing chemistry that eclipses any standard fare cinematic adventures to be had in the modern world.
They are all privvy to a religious undertaking, fuelled by unknown forces and taken into the modern age where such aspirational zeal is laughed at or not understood, or to their dismay forgotten in the event of economic enterprise. Thus their mission also becomes something of a paean and quest to relinquish spiritually to a null and void age, and perhaps ambitiously to even ourselves the viewers.
Despite such grandiose themes, its not the bravura epic some make out nor is it a misfired whimper, Ward in a 1993 interview for The Independent said: ‘It is the kind of far-flung journey, in short, that generally attracts the adjective ‘epic‘ – a word which Ward cautiously endorses. ‘I don’t really like grand myths, but I do like stories like the Odyssey which are rooted in human detail, which have a large degree of human observation and of intimacy.’ The films majesty may be ultimately flawed in the lack of exposition of certain events that transpire, but ultimately it’s own thing and does whatever it is it sets out to do and we are just to bear witness to it’s many arcane delights.
Shunting the film into the lazy and far too broad canon of ‘arthouse’ makes it easier to digest in a contextual form, but also in doing so negates the films other qualities – some films are just what they are on their own terms and nothing more, The Navigator is definitely one of them.
You might cynically argue the MTV video post-modernist logic of the 80’s had permeated film making at this point and the movie could be filed as thus, but The Navigator is no crass offering and requires an attention span a lot longer than five minutes. Although you could argue the portrayal of the Cumbrian villagers themselves is perhaps a romanticised one (their modern accents are perhaps not historically and correct grammatically with the period), perhaps they are deliberately so, and are thus best viewed as archetypes of the ancient world viewed through the lens of popular culture. I won’t reveal all the allusions, commentary and parallels with the modern world the film has and will let the viewer decide for themselves.
The overall experience when watching the film is a peculiarly uplifting one, yet also simultaneously dark and sombre in places. Despite it’s at times playful nature, the stark undertone that permeates the movie and in it’s running time pulls a few punches, the film’s imagery haunting the viewer and leaving an indelible impression long afterwards.
Rather than singling out one scene as a pinnacle, it works best as a whole, traversing a wide range of emotions in the process. Some highlights include a scene featuring a submarine emerging somewhat surreally in a harbour contrasted with the white horse taken in a boat across the expanse of water by our protagonists.
The proceedings are dramatically scored by Iranian composer Davood Tabrizi, it’s Gregorian, Celtic, Scottish and even Middle Eastern overtones set the mood and tone for the entire film, it’s sombre martial and marching undertones contrasted with jubilant and choral themes, ensuring the experience is never static.
Notable actors amongst the otherwise unknown cast include the Australian comedian Paul Livingstone (as Martin) and Australian and New Zealand cinema veteran Chris Haywood (as Arno).
Walter hill viewed the movie shortly after it’s release, and as result soon after Ward found himself on directing and writing duties for Alien 3, his full vision was never realised and the finalised film was a fusion of his and David Twoheys script and Ward was stood down (as were many others during the films inception) from directing. The author David Hughes said in his book THE GREATEST SCI-FI MOVIES NEVER MADE (2005):
‘It wasn’t a retread kind of sequel it was a completely new idea rich with religious imagery, iconography and metaphor.”
A link to the full original Ward script is available below.
The Navigator has a well deserved cult following and its been available on DVD for a few years with Arrow releasing a Blu-ray in 2018 . It’s known in the UK with a lot of people as a film you turned over to midway through on TV too during the 90’s, sometimes whilst intoxicated late at night. But the title of the film always seems to elude people, thus cementing its reputation and mythic status. The Navigator is ultimately a sweeping triumph of wild imagination over conventional film making, packed full of religious symbolism and iconography. There’s no need to press some expectation on the viewer that they need to derive meaning from it and they can enjoy the ride without too much thought going into the process, which makes it the perfect cinematic experience for late nights and viewings with friends.
Vincent Ward: http://vincentwardfilms.com/
Alien 3 original Vincent Ward script: https://www.avpgalaxy.net/files/scripts/alien-3-john-fasano-1990-03-29.pdf
It’s also oddly worth noting that in 1988 the central themes espoused in The Navigator were oddly present in other areas – the infamous Mccewans lager advert, which seen huge sets and Celtic-esque figures pursuing a Sisyphean style mode of work in an MC Escher homaged tower before breaking through into our world, (prob not a viable advertising option these days, ed.) and Test Dept. and Brith Gof’s seminal famous theatrical re-enactment of the poem Y Gododdin also juxtaposed the ancient and modern in it’s avant theatre retelling of the poet Aneirin’s story of an ancient welsh battle. It was as if something archaic and Celtic in origin really was breaking through into popular culture. Whatever the reason, 1988 held some kind of unknown relevance to the brythonic ancestry of Britain.
Or maybe Griffins visions did pass over into the modern world after all…. -ABF ©2020