The other boys mock Griffin, saying he has angels in his head; in another time and place he might be labelled a dreamer, but in the snowy hills of Cumbria in 1348 there is no place for dreams, only survival, as the Black Death rolls across the land, a plague which will claim a third of the population of Europe.
A stark and harsh world of cold black and white, Griffin’s dreams are in vivid colour, visions of another place he cannot explain, but when his elder brother Connor returns to the village, thought lost he has been absent so long, it is at first taken to be a good omen, but Connor bears ill tidings: he has seen the plague and what it does, and it is closing.
Warning that it will be upon them within one full moon, two at the most, the villagers believe that an offering to God will protect them, crystallising Griffin’s vision into the realisation of a quest which they must fulfil, of the men tunnelling to the farthest part of the Earth where they will raise a spire before the dawn breaks and thus save the village.
Originally released in 1988 and now remastered on Blu-ray for Arrow, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and won best film at Rome’s Fantafestival, Spain’s Sitges Film Festival, Portugal’s Fantasporto, Munich’s International Festival of Fantasy Films and a host of further awards at the Australian Film Institute Awards and the New Zealand Film and Television Awards.
Fantasy it undeniably is and more besides, powerful, primal, abstract and mystical, full of religious imagery of fire, water, a passage through the underworld to salvation, a fall from a great height, and always the fear of death, the plague which pursues the travellers and the shadows which hang over the strange, angry, inexplicable and wondrous world in which they find themselves, the threat of nuclear devastation and a new and deadly virus for which there is no cure.
The fourth film from New Zealand director Vincent Ward, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey was released four years after the international acclaim of Vigil, his debut feature, and in many ways it is an inversion of that film which followed a young girl and her mother through trauma and grief, presenting instead a boy leading five men on a vision quest of hope.
Far from a Hollywood production, there is no attempt to soften the reality of the harsh lives of the miners, to make it pretty or dress it up in anything other than muddy rags, to cast a star to give the viewer the comfort of a familiar face to ease them into events, the journey instead as alien to the audience as the characters, no clue as to what is happening or why other than the clues of Griffin’s visions.
Yet, from the monochrome opening scenes of clouds across the moon, an arty eighties pop video unfettered from commercial consideration, to the immaculately photographed neon-lit red and blue saturated mad world in which they arrive, The Navigator is mesmerising in its oddness, the utter conviction of the characters and the cast and Davood A Tabrizi’s choral soundtrack, drawn from an eclectic variety of sources.
Led by Bruce Lyons as Connor and Hamish McFarlane as Griffin along with Chris Haywood, Marshall Napier, Noel Appleby and Paul Livingston as Arno, Searle, Ulf and Martin, all of them largely unknown outside the Antipodes, it was an unforgiving shoot across nine weeks of winter night shoots, yet the result is unique.
Mixing the modern and traditional and taking no account of accepted genre expectations it is a bizarre pilgrimage, a leap of madness and imagination, an act of faith across space and time, and there are parallels with Red Shift in the echoes through the centuries and the religious overtones while five years later the French farce Les Visiteurs would play up the absurdity of displaced Medieval travellers faced with horseless carriages.
Also included on the disc are an appreciation by film critic Nick Roddick, more slight than the equivalent on the recently-released Vigil, and an archive 1989 edition of the arts magazine Kaleidoscope covering both Vigil and The Navigator, of particular interest for the warm interviews with the often reclusive Ward and his parents along with a selection of his collaborators, all of them loyal to their friend and his vision despite the hardships they have endured in the company of such a determined perfectionist.