The Navigator: A Mediaeval Odyssey (1988, USA video title: The Navigator: An Odyssey Across Time)
The Calamitous Fourteenth Century
Peasants, Townspeople, and Social Life
The Navigator: A Mediaeval Odyssey, directed by Vincent Ward and released in 1988, is a visually stunning medieval time-travel adventure. It begins in a small mining village in Cumbria, England, in 1348. Although the village is so far untouched by plague, fear of the looming threat is ever present. A young boy, Griffin (Hamish McFarlane), has prophetic dreams. When Griffin’s brother, Connor (Bruce Lyons), returns from abroad, he confirms the villagers’ fears of the horrors of the plague. The villagers decide that they must erect a spike of Cumbrian copper on the highest church in Christendom so that God might spare their village. Griffin, Connor and four men depart to fulfill Griffin’s vision of tunneling to the far end of the earth to reach the church.When they emerge, they are standing in Auckland, New Zealand, and unbeknownst to them, the year is 1988. After navigating through the city and confronting twentieth-century technology, they are able to mount their cross on the church.Throughout the journey, Griffin’s dreams become increasingly vivid, and he realizes that one of them will die. Although it is revealed that their journey is actually a story being told by Griffin to the men, Griffin’s vision is fulfilled when he is inadvertently infected with plague through his brother and is the only villager to succumb to it.
Although The Navigator was not a financial success, the film did well among critics and won numerous awards. Ward conducted thorough research into fourteenth-century society, and the film’s portrayal of the Black Death seems to be largely accurate as a result. Descriptions of the plague in the film are echoed in medieval primary sources. Villagers in the film speak of omens, build “witches’ spikes” on their homes as protection from pestilence, and Connor says that the full moon “bears contagion.” During the fourteenth century, there was no clear medical explanation for the plague, and many physicians did attribute it to natural occurrences. The villagers’ perceived superstitions, then, are in keeping with certain fourteenth-century chroniclers’ perceptions of the plague. Connor’s account of the pestilence abroad is clearly sourced from fourteenth-century chronicles, and the film also reflects medieval mysticism of the later middle ages. Just as medieval mystics attempted to preserve hope and faith in God during the midst of the plague, Griffin’s visions are seen as the village’s only hope of preventing the arrival of the plague.
Ward’s vision for The Navigator was inspired partially by The Seventh Seal (1958). The image of a winged skeleton with a trumpet in The Navigator recalls a biblical passage recited in The Seventh Seal, which itself references the Book of Revelation.The “dance of death” associated with late medieval imagery, which was also made famous in The Seventh Seal, is incorporated into The Navigator; while Griffin is dancing atop a hill that he realizes he is infected. Another source of inspiration for the film is from Barbara Tuchman’s bestseller A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century. Ward shares Tuchman’s view that people of the twentieth century, like those who lived during the height of the plague, were deprived of “a sense of an assured future” due to the threat of nuclear weapons. The rise of an anti-nuclear movement in 1980s New Zealand played a distinctive role in the development of the film. Ward drew a comparison between the small village in the film fending off the plague and the small island of New Zealand trying to survive the threats of nuclear technology.This is exemplified in a scene where a submarine emerges from the harbor and the group attack it with their oars. Just as this foreign machine represents a dangerous beast to the medieval time travelers, the presence of foreign, nuclear-armed ships in New Zealand waters represents a threat to the island’s inhabitants.
The portions of the film set in the medieval past are filmed in black and white, while the scenes set in 1988 are shot in color. This use of color heightens the contrast between the medieval and the modern. Medieval time-travel films typically involve the transportation of modern people into the middle ages. The Navigatoris a reversal of this trope. While the middle ages in typical medieval time-travel films are often portrayed as crude and morally lax, The Navigator brings the values of medieval society and the values of modern society into conflict in a way that makes the modern world seem foreign and unnatural. Modern machines are made to look monstrous to the medieval eye, and the city lacks the community atmosphere of the Cumbrian village entirely. The film’s portrayal of the diminished role of the church in the modern era is also a commentary on a loss of faith in general. The villagers’ faith in Griffin’s visions and in their ability to change their fate paints the middle ages in a different light, as an age of hope that allowed society to survive a plague that threatened the existence of mankind.
March 3, 1989 (USA)
Film Investment Corporation of New Zealand
Australian Film Commission, The
New Zealand Film Commission
John Maynard Productions
Late Middle Ages (c. 1300-1500)