Vincent Ward’s excellent if not entirely successful medieval adventure story is set in Scottish village in the 14 century as the Black Death is ravaging its way across Europe. A teenage boy experiences a prophetic dream vision of deliverance from the plague – a brave band of explorers must journey to a distant land and mount a spire on top of a church, and with this offering to God, sparing the village from certain doom. Their quest involves tunneling deep into the earth where they rather ingeniously emerge out into modern day New Zealand.
The idea of characters displaced in time is hardly new - Les Visiteurs had Jean Reno play a 12th century knight lost in 20th century France, while Time After Time flung HG Wells and Jack the Ripper into modern day San Francisco – but The Navigator uses this premise with intelligence and restraint. There’s not much in the way of knockabout comedy (like the crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek IV, arriving in 20th century California to be confronted by a punk and a beat box) and most of the action set in New Zealand takes place at night. One sequence has the strangers in a strange land negotiate a busy highway, but it’s a poignant rather than comic scene as one their men is left behind, too afraid to make the crossing.
Occasionally Ward’s ambitious vision runs ahead of the film – a boat journey across a harbor, encountering a surfacing submarine (which the hapless explorers attack with their spears and rocks), doesn’t quite come off, but still it’s a minor complaint in an otherwise wonderful heartfelt adventure story. Fans of Bergman and Tarkovsky should seek this one out as The Seventh Seal and Andrei Rublev were no doubt a visual influence on Ward who shot the sequences in the snowy Scottish village in luminous black and white. Ward’s direction is stylish and compliments nicely the mystical mood of the film. One wonders what Ward could have done with Alien³ which he was attached to briefly before David Fincher came on board.
If you can still find it, the best presentation of The Navigator on DVD remains Australia’s Madman edition which sports a very fine transfer of the film, if not a whole lot of extras. Also available from Madman is Ward’s 1984 film Vigil which is a fine companion piece to The Navigator.