Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: Revisiting an under-rated classic

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Dominic Corry takes another look at the groundbreaking New Zealand film, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey.
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey. Photo/New Zealand Film Commission.
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey. Photo/New Zealand Film Commission.

One of the best things about my gig introducing New Zealand movies every Friday on TVNZ Heartland is that it forces me to watch and re-watch a whole lot of Kiwi films.

I saw Vincent Ward's The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey when it came out in 1988, but being only 11-years-old at the time, I was too young to appreciate its unique wonders.

Watching it again recently for the first time since, was a revelatory experience - I always knew there was more to the film than I remembered, but I had wholly failed to grasp just how magnificent a work it really is.

Most discussions about New Zealand cinema's contemporary successes begin with Jane Campion's 1993 work The Piano, which was released five years after The Navigator.

Vincent Ward's contributions to the Kiwi film-making identity haven't exactly been overlooked, but The Navigator exists in a sort of limbo of New Zealand cinema - after the initial boom in the early '80s (of which Ward's 1984 work Vigil is arguably the crowning achievement), but before the modern movement kick-started by Campion, Peter Jackson's Braindead and Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors.

Consequently, it feels a little lost amongst the Kiwi canon, and far too few young Kiwi film fans appear to have seen it. The Navigator is an amazing film that deserves to be re-discovered by a wide audience - there is truly no other film quite like it, from New Zealand or anywhere.

A singular artistic vision has rarely coalesced so beautifully with such bold genre storytelling. It's no wonder at all that 20th Century Fox hired Vincent Ward to make Alien 3 on the strength of this film. His sadly unrealised vision for that movie remains one of cinema's greatest ever 'What ifs'.

Every image on display in The Navigator betrays the artist's soul of the director, a man whose nightmares are as well-suited to cinema as those of Davids Lynch and Cronenberg.

It tells a story as concerned with the power of storytelling as anything else, and which dabbles in narrative ambiguity with just the right balance.

The first section takes place in a small Cumbrian village in the 14th Century, shot with some of the starkest, bleakest black and white ever put on screen.

We meet the young Griffin (Hamish McFarlane), who has visions of the future, and the returning hero Connor (Bruce Lyons), who tells of the black plague consuming the rest of Europe.

Guided by Griffin's visions, Connor leads a small group of villagers on a dig through the Earth intending to reach a great city where they can place a copper cross atop the "biggest church in Christendom" to earn God's mercy from the plague.

They emerge from their digging in 20th century Auckland (and the film is now in colour), but it never occurs to them that they've travelled through time - they simply attribute the bizarre wonders all around them to being in a big city.

After dealing with the nightmarish terror of crossing a motorway, they head toward a spire on the horizon (St. Patrick's Cathedral in downtown Auckland) and attempt to get their cross forged.

It's an incredibly tense journey that serves tangible and metaphorical ends equally well. The way Ward presents the modern world from the perspective of these simple villagers is incredible - we never once lose sight of their point-of-view.

There are several bravura sequences in the film, not least of which involves a submarine surfacing in Auckland harbour right next to our heroes who are crossing in a small dinghy. With a horse. It's one of the most startling images in New Zealand cinematic history, and is worth watching the film for alone.

Ward achieves a lot in The Navigator, but what I loved most is how it told a genre story that was in no way compromised for being made (and partially set) in New Zealand. If you didn't know Auckland well, you would never know the events took place here. Ward's consistency of vision allows it to simply be 'a city'.

The performances are all fantastic, especially from the young McFarlane, who now works as one of New Zealand's top first assistant directors.

Lyons, who has barely been in anything since, is incredible as principle protagonist Connor. Ward examines the expectations of the traditional hero with this character, and powerfully so. Connor's trip on the front of a train has all the exhilaration of anything in Mad Max 2.

Avuncular English-born Australian actor Chris Haywood, who's appeared in heaps of New Zealand films (he was the coach in Alex), is also highly appealing as the one-armed Arno. And any film benefits from the presence of Marshall Napier, New Zealand's all-time greatest character actor.

Beyond my new-found appreciation of the work on its own terms, one thing that struck me about watching The Navigator from a modern perspective is how much it evokes Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films.

It tells an often tonally similar tale of scruffy village folk venturing out into an unknown and dangerous world on a perilous quest. I guess that's a pretty common set-up, but there are many screenshots here that could easily pass for something from Fellowship of the Ring, especially the above-referenced perilous harbour crossing.

Enhancing the LOTR-vibe is the presence of the cherubic Noel Appleby, who plays the dundering Ulf in The Navigator, and who later turned up as a prominent supporting hobbit.

I'm not saying Jackson was inspired by anything he saw in The Navigator (although he could well have been), I just thought that certain aesthetic similarities were interesting.

The two films Ward made next (Map of the Human Heart and What Dreams May Come) were technically larger in scope, but he never again made anything as epic in feeling as The Navigator. Watching it again has me wishing and hoping he might try another genre tale.

It feels appropriate the film is screening on Anzac Day (7.30pm on TVNZ Heartland), as the film was a co-production between Australia and New Zealand, and was thus eligible for the film awards in both countries - it swept all the major categories at both, and was also nominated for the Palme d'Or - the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

It's also apparently Jeremy Irons' favourite movie. So there.

* Are you, like Jeremy Irons, a big fan of Vincent Ward's The Navigator? What are your memories of it? Comment below!

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