The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey
by Cathy Cupitt

A Plaguing Paradox:
An Exploration of Meaning in The Navigator

The Navigator is an ambitious ‘time’ travel film set in both the fourteenth and twentieth centuries. It utilises many of the visual techniques common to action or suspense films (montages of short takes from differing viewpoints, foreshadowing using partial views of action) and yet has a seriousness not usually to be found in either of these genres. It also differs from these types of films in that it does not spoon-feed the audience its meaning. As a consequence the themes are often somewhat contradictory, and certainly thought-provoking. In this essay I will explore some of the themes the film seems to suggest, and why interpretation could be seen as problematic.

The film uses a sophisticated interweaving of timelines, cutting from vision to ‘reality’, and juxtaposes medieval expectation with modern experience. The grand total of this is a visually seamless film, of indeterminate genre, which plays with the viewer’s conception of what is ‘real’. The filmic pretence of the fourteenth century is presented as ‘real’ within the film, while the real modern city is a ‘vision’. This brings a level of difficulty to interpreting the film, as the position
of the film to ‘reality’ becomes elusive.

Perhaps the most intriguing problem is that we are never quite sure what Griffin’s (the lead protagonist’s) vision is. Was his dream-quest ‘real’ in any physical sense? And if it wasn’t, why was the place he saw so similar to a present day city? This confusion about reality is reminiscent of that in Twain’s Connecticut Yankee. We are left with the same sorts of questions about the nature of reality, dream and fiction. One critic has described this feeling quite well, saying the film is “like an ultra-sober Wizard of Oz – it’s even bookended with black and white sequences and a journey to a magical city”1.

The most obvious technique used in the filming of The Navigator is the use of black and white film in the fourteenth century ‘real’ sequences, which frames the almost surreally coloured modern cityscape sequences. Vincent Ward, the director, features the colours of the middle ages prominently in the film. Particularly the frequent shades of azure blue, which were inspired primarily by the Duc de Berry’s Book of Hours. The blue is contrasted with reds taken from Bosch, Brueghel and Grunewald2. It is the contrast of black and white to colour that most strongly suggests that the modern sequences are not ‘real’ within the logic of the film.

The confusion about what is ‘real’ in The Navigator is both a strength and weakness. It means that the film tends to be suggestive of themes rather than didactic. It also causes a strong feeling of the otherworldly to permeate the film, which helps create a suspension of disbelief for the viewer. Yet at the same time the medieval scenes are so beautifully reconstructed that there is a contradictory feeling of realism not unlike that in Umberto Echo’s Name of the Rose. And of course Griffin’s ‘dream’ is of a modern Western city that the audience of the film recognises as reality.

The main themes Ward develops all make use of the contrasts and similarities between the medieval and the modern. There are many possible themes suggested by the film, for example: urban decay, and its relationship to pre-industrial squalor, the alienation of urban spaces in contrast to the idea of isolation equalling safety, an exploration of the power of vision and faith, and a questioning of whether modern belief systems are any more sensible than those of the past. In this essay I shall explore what I think are the two most important themes: modern and medieval manifestations of plague, and the contrast of modern disbelief and medieval faith.

Modern and Medieval manifestations of Plague

The Black Death can in many ways be seen to parallel the modern horrors of AIDS and the threat of Nuclear war. Both eras of the film are shown to face the inability of their healing institutions (religion, medicine) to effectively cope with plague – whether it be a form of disease, or the consequences of Nuclear war3, which would place survivors and victims in a similar position to those living in the age of the Black Death. As Vincent Ward himself puts it:

They [14th and 20th centuries] were both calamitous ages. The fourteenth century had plague, war and holocausts and this century has seen wars on vast scale and the potential for further holocaust.4

Correspondingly a rich field of comparison is in how both ages deal with their fear of these plagues. In The Navigator this is most apparent in the sequence on the city street when Griffin is framed by multiple television sets. A popular representation of AIDS in a public health advertising campaign during the 1980’s was as a Grim Reaper. A segment of one of these commercials is seen briefly during this section of the film. Earlier we were shown an image of the Grim Reaper flying across the face of the fourteenth century ‘plague-spreading’ full moon5. That this medieval image should still be considered as having active currency in the twentieth century suggests that our technologically superior world is not really so very far separated from that of the middle ages, at least in terms of psychology.

The same fears of uncontrollable and disastrous unknowns still haunt us. The same actions are repeated. In the fourteenth century sequences we see frightened people pushing away infected refugees, and we hear of monks refusing to give the last rites. Despite the much lower chance of infection by AIDS, the same types of behaviour have been manifested in the twentieth century, with AIDS being seen as a shameful disease, the wrathful retribution of God and so on. In the film we don’t see the twentieth century version of shunning and condemning behaviour, just the background image of the Grim Reaper bowling people over like skittles.

Ward has picked up on a rather ironic conflation of images with the Grim Reaper. We take such pride in living in the so called ‘Age of Reason’, yet our basic motivations and fears seem to have changed very little in six centuries of development.

During this same sequence with the background televisions, the links between plague and nuclear threat are also evoked. Having just survived the apparition-like confrontation with the nuclear submarine in the bay, Griffin is framed by a television presenter saying:

The fact is you still have an alliance with the Pentagon. This is the real world, 1988. You can’t isolate one little part of the world and say “nuclear free”. Oh you can try, but then, there is no refuge. No pocket. No escape from the real world.6

New Zealand’s nuclear free zone policy was condemned during the eighties, particularly by the Americans. In hindsight, and with our retrained nineties sensibilities which are concerned with non-proliferation treaties, New Zealand’s policy seems extremely sane, and the response to it bizarrely out of proportion. I think Ward is again making use of visual irony here. By conflating the fourteenth century quest with the nuclear issue we are faced with an aspect of modern illogicality. After all, which is more illogical: trying to stop a plague by raising a church spire, or deriding a community for removing a deadly threat? And even more ironically, it seems as though the fourteenth century, through their leap of faith, have succeeded in creating a ‘safe pocket’ which will be passed over by the plague – something that is now seen as impossible in the ever shrinking world of the ‘global village’ and man-made nuclear plague.

The middle ages are such a good foil for this type of contrast because “it’s as if the demons of our contemporary world – our technological monsters of destruction – could be foreseen in the nightmares of medieval men.”7 Ward has overtly stated that this critique of the modern world was part of his aim. “One assumes that one is more superior than someone 600 years ago, but in many areas we know less.”8

Modern Disbelief and Medieval Faith

It is an interesting phenomenon that an examination of faith is once again an important topic for debate in popular mediums. For example, it is present in the successful television show The X-Files (“The Truth is Out There,” “Trust No-one,” “I want to believe”)9, and has been linked to anxiety about the end of the millennium10. The theme of faith in the face of apocalypse is also explored in The Navigator.

The twentieth century is shown as undergoing a crisis of faith that the fourteenth century protagonists are far from feeling. The fourteenth century protagonists are shown as rich in faith, with the evocative signs, dreams and portents that motivate Griffin and his fellow questers. On the other hand the modern city is spiritually poor, with its centre of artificial televised images playing to an empty street.

This modern crisis of faith is revealed as being a double loss – a loss of faith in both religion and science. The Navigator was made in the 1980’s, at the height of the ‘Greed is Good’ credo. This was a time in which people seemed to expect to live fast and die young – where there was no certain tomorrow, and instant gratification was everything. Faith in the infinite ability of science and scientists to devise answers to human problems was on the wane. The incurability of AIDS and the potential for irreversible destruction through Nuclear weapons were two potent symbols for the ‘failure’ of science. The strength of the film is that it “quite literally connects the blighted, spiritually certain fourteenth century of the Black Death with the bloated, spiritually bereft twentieth century of AIDS.”11

The responses of people living in the two ages to their respective fears of catastrophe are explored through their faith or lack of it. The medieval response is to embark on a religious quest to raise a church spire, and the fact that the quest is probably nothing more than a dream or vision is irrelevant to its success. Griffin’s navigation does, in fact, seem to successfully (and ironically) create ‘a refuge, a pocket, an escape from the real world’ of plague. There is no sense of ridicule about their faith in achievable salvation suggested by the film. Rather, the modern response seems inadequate – we have seemingly abandoned faith altogether, especially religious faith. The only visions are ‘tele-visions’. And modern quests (such as the removal of nuclear weapons) are contemporaneously condemned as naive and impossible.

The sequence in the foundry is perhaps the clearest summation of this theme. “While the process of the casting of the crucifix itself is ritualistically elevated by the visuals and by choral and percussive effects on the soundtrack” it is contrasted by Martin’s disbelieving question of the foundry-men, “The church is poor?”12. There is no revelation of a modern institution of faith to replace the one that is in decay, except perhaps a ruthless capitalism. The foundry worker’s reply to Martin is “Like any other business when they don’t want what you’re selling”13.

The modern viewer is offered the point of view that we have lost some valuable essence, as we have gained our scientific cynicism and nihilism. “Themes of faith, … sacrifice and an enviable sense of community lost to modern man broaden and deepen the travellers’ quest”14 and correspondingly reveal a narrow, shallow spiritual future.

Ward is a strong believer in the need for faith.

I believe faith and hope are pre-requisites for action and change, regardless of the odds. Not in the sense of religious hope and faith, but in the sense of faith in the potential of human creativity.15

A rather interesting paradox that occurs to me is that although The Navigator portrays the modern world as faithless, the film itself can be seen as a triumph of hope and faith in the modern world, overcoming both financial and physical difficulties to be made. This knowledge acts to subvert the themes Ward has suggested through the carefully constructed images, especially as the film seems to invite us to view it with real world issues in mind.

Which returns me to the starting point of this essay. The meaning of the film is elusive, its themes potentially contradictory. We are left with unanswered questions, particularly about how this film is positioned with regard to ‘reality’. Do we only look at the film’s inner logic, even though it seems to invite comparison with institutions and events happening in the external world? Or do we make the comparisons and give up on trying to work out what is real – accept the work as referential fantasy?

Personally, I like the ambiguity of the film. Its openness intrigues me and invites re-viewing. Critically, I think the themes are suggested strongly enough to be thought provoking, and that consequently it is unnecessary to answer these questions about ‘reality’. Film, like fiction, is a fabric of truth and fantasy that cannot be unpicked without ruining the design.


– –
“Vincent Ward Filmography.” Omni Media PLC Website.
Update 2, 01/03/96.
(Accessed 11/3/97).
Burridge, S.
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey.” Internet Movie Database. Originally posted to newsgroup. (Accessed 11/3/97).
Cripps Clark, J.
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey.” Internet Movie Database. Originally posted to newsgroup. (Accessed 30/4/97).
Fox, J.
The Navigator: An Odyssey Across Time,” In Magill, F. (ed.). Magill’s Cinema Annual 1990. Pasadena, Englewood Cliffs: Salem Press, 1990, 253-256.
Goble, A. (ed.).
The International Film Index 1895-1990. London, Melbourne, Munich, New Jersey: Bowker-Saur, 1991.
Hughes, P.
“The Two Ages of The Navigator. Cinema Papers 72 (March 1989), 26-27.
Nayman, M.
The Navigator: Vincent Ward’s Past Dreams of the Future.” Cinema Papers 69 (May 1988), 30-31.
Nicoladi, M.
The Navigator finds its way.” Cinema Papers 66, November (1987), p.58.
Pulleine, T.
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey.” Monthly Film Bulletin (May 1989), 144-145.
Ward, V.
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey. (film) New Zealand: Arenafilm, 1988.
Ward, V., Lyons, K. and Chapple, G.
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (screenplay) London, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1989.

End Notes

  1. Shane Burridge, “The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey,” Internet Movie Database. Originally posted to newsgroup. (Accessed 11/3/97).
  2. Vincent Ward, Kely Lyons and Geoff Chapple, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (screenplay) (London, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1989), p. xiii.
  3. Peter Hughes, “The Two Ages of The Navigator,” Cinema Papers 72 (March 1989), p.26.
  4. Ward, Lyons and Chapple, p. xiii.
  5. In reality this icon was probably not widely recognised in the fourteenth century, but it was certainly widely known by the end of the fifteenth century. See James Hall, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. (London: John Murray, 1979), p.94. Also J.C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978). p.138.
  6. Vincent Ward, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey. (film) (New Zealand: Arenafilm, 1988).
  7. Ward, Lyons and Chapple, p. xiii.
  8. Michele Nayman, “The Navigator: Vincent Ward’s Past Dreams of the Future,” Cinema Papers 69 (May 1988), p.31.
  9. Chris Carter, The X-Files. (television) These quotes are almost slogans of the show.
  10. Hughes, p.27.
  11. Ward, Lyons and Chapple, back cover.
  12. Tim Pulleine, “The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey,” Monthly Film Bulletin (May 1989), p.145.
  13. Ward, (film).
  14. Jordan Fox, “The Navigator: An Odyssey Across Time,” In Frank N. Magill (ed.), Magill’s Cinema Annual 1990 (Pasadena, Englewood Cliffs: Salem Press, 1990), p.253.
  15. Hughes, p.27.

Comments are closed.