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The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988)


In the rural British county of Cumbria in 1348, a boy named Griffin (Hamish McFarlane) is troubled by visionary dreams. His beloved elder brother Connor (Bruce Lyons) returns home from an expedition and reports the plague is on its way. In a desperate bid to save their village, Griffin leads his brother and four others into a deep pit, hoping to reach the other side of the world. They find themselves on the edge of a contemporary antipodean city, where they encounter cars on a busy highway, a submarine, and televisions. In order to fulfil Griffin’s prophecy they set out to cast a copper cross and place it atop a cathedral spire.

Curator’s notes

This first-ever Australia–New Zealand co-production was directed by Vincent Ward, a young Kiwi whose debut feature, Vigil (1984), had made a strong impression internationally. If the first film had been obviously marked by the influence of the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, The Navigator took that influence and ran with it.

The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey remains one of a kind, not only in Australian and New Zealand film, but world cinema. This is strikingly original science-fiction from a part of the world where this genre has always been under-explored on screen. The ‘science-fiction’ tag fails to give an adequate sense of the film’s boldness and ambition. While wearing many influences on its sleeve, Ward’s film was an entirely singular, visually striking allegory of the late 20th century with its scourges of warfare and HIV/AIDS.

As Ward commented:

The 14th century had plague, war and holocausts and [the 20th] century has seen wars on a vast scale and the potential for the further holocaust. They were both calamitous ages.

Ward’s narrative and much of his second film’s visual style owe an obvious debt to Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966), the story of a medieval icon painter. This is especially true of the scene showing the casting of a copper ‘spike’ (or cross) to place atop a cathedral – an apparent homage to the celebrated scene in Rublev depicting the casting of a huge cathedral bell. A further influence was Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) which, like The Navigator, was set in medieval times during the plague.

The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey was released in Australian cinemas on 6 December 1988. It screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and won six AFI Awards in 1988: Best Picture, Director, Cinematography (Geoffrey Simpson), Editing (John Scott), Production Design (Sally Campbell) and Costume Design (Glenys Jackson), and was nominated for Best Actor (Hamish McFarlane) and Supporting Actor (Paul Livingston). The film was nominated for – and won – 11 New Zealand Film and TV Awards in 1989, including Best Film and Director.