Vincent Ward’s second movie after Vigil, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey has been described as the missing link between Andrei Tarkovsky and Terry Gilliam , and that’s actually not a bad description (the original script was more comic and the idea had been for the actin to involve, well, time-travelling dwarves… my guess is that when Ward saw Time Bandits he had an ‘oh shit!’ moment and went for a rewrite). It centres on a young boy called Griffin, who starts having visions and decides to tunnel through the Earth to the other side. It is the time of the Black Plague in medieval Cumbria, England. A group of villagers tunnel through and find themselves in modern-day New Zealand.
The locations used were ridiculously remote, as with Vigil—making ‘difficult’ movies is definitely Ward’s thing and no doubt the reason he hasn’t made many. All the medieval stuff was shot 100 metres above sea level, and they could only film when it was too cold for mountaineering. When Herzog (another director who has battled every element possible) saw it, he said ‘it must have been hard to make.’ There is certainly a Herzogian element to it.
It’s a magical realist adventure movie, and of course beautifully filmed. The modern world appears much stranger than the medieval world, and includes nods of nuclear war and other modern-day horrors. It has a cast of New Zealand character actors, who are very good and their ambiguity adds to the film’s mystique.
Ward has made contradictory statements, framing it as just an adventure story or conversely as a film about the need to maintain a belief in something no matter what. He’s one of the most single-minded filmmakers ever, and it’s a shame he isn’t active in feature work anymore. What’s especially frustrating is that none of his films are quite perfect. You get the feeling that there was a masterpiece possible but never achieved.
There is a brand-new appreciation of the film by Nick Roddick, who also supplied one for Vigil, and a documentary profile made for New Zealand TV at the point of Ward’s abortive Hollywood breakthrough. There’s also a booklet by Kim Newman, and an introduction by Vincent Ward. It’s great that they are now available after years of being incredibly difficult to find. Only What Dreams May Come and River Queen have been easy to find. Most people only know of him because he didn’t make ALIEN³! But the films he did make are much more interesting than that factoid.