ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988) Blu Ray (Arrow)
A journey through the centre of the Earth… and through time
This fantasy adventure starts off during a cold winter in 14th-century Cumbria, England. A young boy named Griffin (Hamish Gough) has a dream vision of a tunnel which passes right through the centre of the world, and of someone falling to their death while attempting to place a cross on top of a tall church. Since the villagers believe he has prophetic powers, they see his dream as a way to save themselves from the scourge of the Black Death which is sweeping the land.
Griffin, guided by the information which he has picked up in his vision, goes on a mission with his older brother Connor (Bruce Lyons) and a band of other villagers to burrow through the earth. When they finally emerge on the other side, they find themselves in a city in modern-day New Zealand at nighttime. This primitive band of adventurers attempts to deal with the unfamiliar trappings and technologies of modern society while seeking out the fabled church seen in Griffin’s vision.
Watch a trailer:
Tarkovsky meets the fish out of water
Ostensibly, this Australian-NZ coproduction fits in with 1980s cycle of “fish out of water” fantasy adventures such as Splash (1984), Back to the Future (1985), The Highlander and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (both 1986). In terms of its overall modus operandi, however, it is worlds (or should that be time zones?) apart from them. While all of those films fit firmly into the category of mainstream, crowd-pleasing entertainment, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey is spiritually far closer to the films of legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. Think Andrei Rublev (1965) meets Stalker (1979), albeit running to a much more concise runtime of just over an hour and a half.
It’s a bravely non-commercial venture. The feel is very lyrical, languid and detached - a story told via a succession of stark artistic images over and above any conventional focus on dramatic devices. It can seem uninvolving and even deliberately alienating to the casual viewer. However, those willing to soak in the rich audiovisual details and join together the dots will find it to be a rewarding experience.
The early medieval sequences are shot in black and white, They depict the period with a painstaking authenticity, ranging from the characters’ accents and dialogue to the cold, the damp, the darkness and an outlook guided more by superstition than by hard knowledge. The opening dream is presented as a montage of puzzle-piece symbols - a cross shimmering underwater, a church spire, a frantic POV chase up a staircase and so on. As the movie goes on, both ourselves and the central characters get to piece them together.
During their dig through the centre of the world, the cinematography switches to full colour and gives us the film’s most singularly startling shot: a cross-section profile of the tunnel as the adventurers burrow, slowly but surely, towards their destination. Whenever they arrive at the modern-day city of Auckland, the film revels in a series of setpieces involving the group dealing with a variety of modern motorised contraptions which we take for granted, but clearly pose a great danger to those who are unfamiliar with them. Crossing a motorway becomes a terrifying ordeal. Junkyard cranes loom like dragons in the darkness. A submarine becomes a mythical sea creature. The way in which Ward shoots the contemporary urban landscape turns it into something simultaneously magical and otherworldly.
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey largely avoids the obvious comedy tactics and instead turns itself into a thrilling and beguiling mystical quest. As with Tarkovsky’s films, it probes the nature of faith and its necessity to those who lack anything else. While these medieval characters lack the knowledge that modern humanity takes for granted, the script never belittles them but rather views them through the prism that they have nothing else to grab onto, bar their mission to put the cross on top of the church. It all ends up with a twist that leaves us wondering and discussing, thus truly sealing its status as a unique piece of intelligent and imaginative cinema.
Runtime: 91 mins
Dir: Vincent Ward
Script: Geoff Chapple, Kely Lyons, Vincent Ward
Starring: Bruce Lyons, Chris Haywood, Hamish Gough, Marshall Napier, Noel Appleby, Paul Livingston, Sarah Peirse
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
It’s a beautiful looking and sounding HD print. Contrast and colour grading are spot on, while the layers of sonic detail are rich and enveloping. The film’s chanted soundtrack sections are especially haunting in this presentation.
Nick Roddick on The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey
This new appreciation of the film by critic Roddick is disappointingly lukewarm and underwhelming. He even spells this out by admitting that he prefers his earlier film Vigil. He touches upon the film’s funding and production challenges; Ward had to get the last 30% of his financing from Australia and was forced to film the modern-day sequences in Auckland when the original script had intended for them to be shot in Wellington. Roddick also takes a brief look at some of his other work, including mentioning his involvement in Alien 3.
Kaleidoscope: Vincent Ward
This interesting 1989 documentary was originally aired as part of a New Zealand TV series. It features interviews with some of the actors and writers who worked with the director, as well as taking a visit to the ranched owned by his parents where he grew up. He certainly comes across as an exceptionally dedicated and perfectionistic person. While developing his early documentary In Spring One Plants Alone, he spent two years living close to an isolated Maori community. The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey was a particularly gruelling production since it involved 10-hour night shoots in the winter landscape of NZ’s Southern Alps, resulting in him being affected with frostbite for several weeks. Fiona Kay (who played a young girl in Ward’s 1984 film Vigil) admits that his constant drive for perfection can be difficult, one example being a scene where she is straddling a ravine - a terrifying experience for someone of her age. When Ward demanded that she returned for reshoots the next day, she refused to do so.
A collector’s booklet (featuring a contribution by Kim Newman) and trailer round out the extras.
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey is a rich and imaginative work which will delight some but leave others cold. Arrow’s excellent audio-visual presentation of the film makes it a must for Ward fans, even if it is a little light in the extras department.