Wednesday 1 March 2017

WDGB #36 / OaTW #5: The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988)

(This post is #36 in the series We Don't Go Back
and #5 in On a Thousand Walls
The Navigator is one of my favourite films. Fair warning, right?

I first caught Vincent Ward's 1988 masterpiece on a rare TV showing in my late teens, taped on a Sunday night off BBC2, and kept for years until the tape wore out. Finding a DVD copy isn't an immediately straightforward affair, unless you find an import, since it's not purchasable in any format on the primary market in the UK, and hasn't been since a single VHS release in the 1990s. I'm able to wait until Masters of Cinema or Criterion or Artificial Eye or whoever do a lovingly restored Blu Ray and accept that the Spanish DVD I have with the shoddy pan and scan transfer is better than nothing.
I think the takeaway from this is that it's a film that you have to want to see. I mean not to the extent that the unexpurgated cut of The Devils is, or the cut of the original Star Wars without all the stupid CGI inserts and changes, more on the level of paying up to 35 quid for a decent import and maybe fiddling with your DVD player to be able to play it. That sort of level.

The steps we have taken to watch a film alter how we watch it; rarity often rarefies. I've got no time for elitism, a fair contempt for the idea that you should be pleased with yourself for having seen a film that no one else has. But while I am firmly of the belief that everyone should have an opportunity to see all the films I write about and I dearly want to share the films I love with you (not to mention the ones I don't much care for and the ones I'm ambivalent about) I am aware that you might not get round to seeing The Navigator, even more than a lot of the other obscure and esoteric films I write about. And that has to change the way we approach it.
A cold March.
We're blessed right now with an access to media that we never had in previous decades. Once, all films used to be like this. I have some copies of Marvel horror magazine from the mid-1970s, and some of them have these long, like 10,000 words long, review articles about The Exorcist, White Zombie and Live and Let Die, huge long in-depth pieces that assume that if you didn't see these movies in the cinema or on a TV showing, then you won't have seen them, and that the majority of readers probably wouldn't ever get to see these movies. The issue of "spoilers" was an irrelevance; they spelled out the course of these films in exquisite detail, and made close readings of the film from a single viewing, that they accompanied with stills and quotes. The way in which we write about film has changed, and films that are hard to find remind us a little of where we've come from.

It's 1348, at the onset of the Black Death. In a mining village in Cumbria, the people wait anxiously for news of the outside world. One of their own, Connor (Bruce Lyons), has been gone travelling for a month or more, and he comes back with dreadful stories of the way the Death is afflicting the outside world.
Connor's strange younger brother Griffin (Hamish McFarlane, who, aged only 11, delivers a performance that carries the film) is prone to dreams and visions, and as the men of the village discuss whether a pilgrimage would drive the Black Death away by drawing down the grace of God, Griffin's strange dreams suggest to him a way to save the village. They must travel to a city and raise a cross of Cumbrian copper atop a cathedral there. But they have to dig. Connor and Griffin, along with world weary Searle (Marshall Napier), childlike Ulf (Noel Appleby), devout Martin (Paul Livingston) and rascally Arno (Chris Haywood), venture into the mine. They find, as Griffin predicts, a digging machine. With it, they tunnel through to the far side of the world.
The tunnel.
The film, black and white up to this point, changes to colour, as they dig through the planet, and come out in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1988. There, they make friends with the workers at a foundry, due to close that night; the foundry workers discover that the cross the villagers bring is the exact shape of a cross they had intended to forge for the cathedral, but never made, because the cathedral ran out of money, a detail that the villagers find fully as hard to credit as the wonders they find – a dual carriageway, a nuclear submarine rising from the waters, a television showroom, a train, a junkyard, the lights of the city.

The workers in the doomed foundry decide to help the peasants, because what the hell, they're losing their jobs anyway. And the cross is reforged, and raised. One of the Cumbrians dies.
Raising the cross.
The Navigator very deliberately presents the city as the Cumbrian peasants experience it, through their eyes, with the things they understand – the church, the foundry – being clear, explicable, even friendly. They muck in with the job of reforging the cross for the cathedral spire naturally, immediately grasping that although the machines might be powered by more than hand and foot, they're still the same machines that do the same tasks. Metal endures.

Except it doesn't – the craft of the foundry is dying. It's their last night on the job. Come the morning, it'll shut down for good.
Metal endures.
The things the peasants don't understand – everything else – are fragmentary, even monstrous. When the submarine rises out of the harbour, it's shot to look like a sea monster. When Connor, spooked by the junkyard, climbs onto the front of a train and goes for an unexpected ride, the film insistently sticks to his viewpoint and only his viewpoint, so that you see the tracks, the movement, the city flashing past, the wind battering his face.

The Navigator doesn't just contrast the old and new, it parallels them. The nuclear submarine and the news report playing in the TV showroom evoke nuclear dread; Wellington in 1988 was just as afraid of an unstoppable, apocalyptic outside force that it couldn't control as the Cumbrian village was of the Black Death. The peasants feel as out of depth in New Zealand as New Zealanders often say they feel in more urbanised countries (and Flight of the Conchords has the most famous comedic expression of this feeling).
Smithy, Martin and Jay.
And the foreman of the foundry (Desmond Kelly) is called Smith. His crew call him Smithy, and the villagers recognise him as just that, the smithy, and respond to him as someone who understands. And he does, and sees a common humanity in them. The city of the future might be terrifying and hostile, but a smithy can still cast a cross from Cumbrian copper out of kindness. Smithy the smithy and his crew are the only people the Cumbrians speak to. Every other person is inside a vehicle or far away, faceless, unreal. Wellington is a city of ghosts.
Ulf on the black highroad.
Without giving away more than I have to, the framing of the villagers' out of time adventure recalls in its aesthetic the medieval traveller's tale; it reminds me of the Voyage of Brendan, which I encountered at about the same time I first saw The Navigator (and the Voyage of Brendan is also sometimes called The Navigator, and I don't think that's a coincidence). The same wild imaginings fill the film. They see a black high road on which roaring chariots ride. A beast rises from the waters. Demons harry and snap at a man's body.
The snapping beast in the junkyard.
Like many of the films I've approached here, The Navigator is in no way a horror film, but then folk horror doesn't actually have to be horror. Certainly it draws strangeness from isolation and a faith that seems alien to us, but it also succeeds in the admirable feat of reminding us of how strange the landscape of the modern city is, so much so that we identify with the medieval villagers. It's pitched exactly half way between urban wyrd and folk horror, but transcends either genre by being a film of haunting beauty.

I love The Navigator. I can't think of a film like it. It is restless and strange, and packed with more ideas and meaning than anything I've seen come out of Hollywood for a long time. Is it worth making the extra effort to track a copy down?

Yes. Yes, it is.