After his acclaimed debut feature film, Vigil, in 1984, which became the first New Zealand film to premiere at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, Vincent Ward followed it up four years later with The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey: an interesting mix of fantasy and time-travel sci-fi that, although might look a little dated and feel a bit messy at times, proved Ward to be a talented film maker with a unique vision and an exciting new talent.
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey is set in Cumbria, England, in the 14th century during the Black Death. The people of a small village in the mountains hear of the infamous and gruesome plague that has swept the world and are rightly terrified that the Black Death will soon arrive in their village and infect them all.
Hope comes in the form of Griffin (Hamish McFarlane), a young boy known for having a “second sight”: an ability to see into the future. After some particularly lucid visions, Griffin believes that his second sight could lead to saving the village from the Black Death.
After encouraging a group of villagers, (including Connor (Bruce Lyons), a charismatic villager Griffin idolises, and who becomes an important figure later in the film’s dramatic final scene), who all firmly believe in Griffin’s visions, they travel through a tunnel underground and climb a ladder. Soon they arrive in a city in twentieth century New Zealand. Their mission is to place a holy cross on the steeple of the church in the city, therefore gaining God’s protection from the plague back home in their village.
Possibly the most impressive idea in The Navigator is the change from black and white to colour when Griffin and the villagers get from their medieval homeland to twentieth century New Zealand. Although you see flashes of colour before (Griffin’s visions are in colour but are fairly brief), the change is pretty seamless and something which the viewer might not even acknowledge at first.
This is partly down to the engaging and absorbing performances from the lead actors. Hamish McFarlane in particular as Griffin, the gifted boy who just wants to save his village from the plague, puts in a solid, exciting, and emotional performance in what must have been a big test for the young actor. But the whole cast do a great job in bringing Vincent Ward’s big, bold vision to life in what looks like a demanding but ultimately rewarding time for all involved.
Arrow Video have done their usual job of putting together a decent package for this 30th anniversary Blu-Ray release, and the extras on this one include a specially made appreciation of the film by critic Nick Roddick, (who among us knew that Vincent Ward came up with the story for underrated sci-fi horror Alien 3?!); a 1989 made-for-TV documentary on the director titled ‘Kaleidoscope: Vincent Ward – Film Maker’; and the film’s theatrical trailer. First pressings of this release come with an illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing on The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey by renowned film critic Kim Newman, with an introduction by Vincent Ward.
Despite its flaws (some of the scenes seem a little drawn out and overly long, and any attempts at comedy seem forced), The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey is another well made, unique and interesting film from Vincent Ward, who would go on to cement himself as something of a visionary in modern cult cinema.