The Black Death looms large over the evocative first act of Vincent Ward’s The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey. Penitent monks wander the landscape of 14th-century northwestern England, hoping to come under God’s protection. Occasionally the dead pass through the film’s black-and-white frames in coffins, with villagers muttering solemnly about the countless other corpses that litter the country with no one to give them proper burial. The malaise left by the plague haunts almost every shot, so plunged in darkness.
In their fear, peasants fall back on superstition and faith for comfort. A village adventurer, Connor (Bruce Lyons), returns from a sojourn shaken by the spectacle of mass death. Looking to stave off the plague, he and a group of fellow villagers are drawn to a psychic young boy, Griffin (Hamish McFarlane), whose visions of earning God’s mercy by placing a copper cross on the tallest cathedral in the region are taken as prophecy by his desperate elders.
This band of men sets out to cast a copper cross and place it on the steeple of “the biggest church in all of Christendom.” They tunnel into the earth for the finest copper ore, only to dig so deep that they travel through time, emerging in present-day New Zealand—and in so doing, the film switches to color. In their confusion and provincialism, the men assume this is what any large city from this period is supposed to look like, and they navigate Auckland undeterred in their quest. The stage would appear to be effectively set for a fish-out-of-water comedy in the vein of Time Bandits.
Ward, though, doesn’t settle for cliché, tinging his heroes’ journey with a sense of the fantastic as they confront such obstacles as a bustling highway, the towering spire of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, even a submarine that surfaces in a harbor and that the men attempt to spear like a whale. Ward originally intended to make a jauntier film, and he even planned to cast little people as the time-traveling troupe. Yet the final film is a serious attempt to fully empathize with the displacement felt by his characters.
Take the scene in which the heroes emerge in Auckland and find themselves at the edge of the wide and busy highway, scared witless by the existence of cars. Instead of playing the scene for laughs, Ward homes in on the sheer terror felt by the old and kindly Ulf (Noel Appleby) as he unsuspectingly finds himself on the other end of the highway separated from the rest of his party. Connor reveals his panic over the group’s situation before then making the decision to abandon his friend in order to continue their quest—and the scene is capped by Ward poignantly highlighting the old man’s uncomprehending, tear-stained face as his friends desert him.
The party’s unwavering focus on their quest gives The Navigator its propulsive momentum. The film’s second half is devoted to the group’s attempt to place their cross on the spire of St. Patrick’s, a seemingly simple matter that’s delayed by various setbacks—digressions that successfully work to enrich the characters. The issue of Connor’s occasional cowardice and dubious qualification to lead comes to a head, as does Griffin’s increasing zeal to contribute to the group’s efforts. Griffin’s religious fervor is contrasted with the wavering faith of his compatriots, who feel more displacement than ever when attempting to reconcile St. Patrick’s, with its classical architecture and interior design, with the modern city that surrounds it. The doubt sown among the men plays out in the film’s dour coda, which directly questions the efficacy of not only this quest but any mythic journey to counter a foe like the Black Death that cannot be slain with swords or sorcery.
The black-and-white images of Navigator’s early half look rich on Arrow Video’s transfer. Faces and objects show off stable contrast, and black levels are deep and rich, absent of any crushing. The smallest of details in the later color scenes are clearly visible, such as the light that refracts off of Connor’s hazel eyes and the sweat on the unwashed faces of the peasants. The stereo soundtrack nicely threads the unceasing din of contemporary urban life around the dialogue, which is clear even during the loudest of scenes. The track calls attention to the subtle impressionism of the sound design, which frequently mixes natural industrial noises with more organic but monstrous howls and groans to give objects like bulldozers dragon-like properties.
An archival documentary for New Zealand TV profiles Vincent Ward and features interviews with the filmmaker and many of his collaborators. Nick Roddick, a critic and colleague of Ward’s, also provides an overview of the film, as well as contributes an essay to the disc’s accompanying booklet essay, which also contains a foreword and brief biographies of the cast and crew.
One of the greatest fantasy films of the 1980s receives a beautiful transfer from Arrow Video, making it ripe for rediscovery.