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senses of cinema, vincent ward

The Navigator: A Mediaeval Odyssey (1988) d. Vincent Ward – Opening 4mins


The Australian online digital film magazine Senses of Cinema are soon to be running a piece on Key Moments in Australian Cinema with the following set of criteria:

“Key Moments in Australian Cinema is an ongoing series of short articles (600-800 words) that asks writers to select and respond to any moment (a shot, a striking image, a scene, a segment however defined, or something more ephemeral) from an Australian film. This series aims to celebrate works from across the range of Australian cinema (and even to stretch the definition of what Australian cinema might be). It also addresses a serious limitation in much of the discussion of Australian cinema – the lack of attention to close textual analysis and questions of style – by encouraging writers to analyse a chosen or cherished moment in detail and tease out why they find it so resonant and evocative. Contributions – however controversial, iconoclastic and adventurous – are most welcome.

Here is my entry on the opening four minutes of Vincent Ward’s 1988 film THE NAVIGATOR: A MEDIAEVAL ODYSSEY.


Our story begins with white text on black background, traditional since film began. The soft gentle voice of a female vocalist guides us through the film’s opening credits. The title of the film appears in large bold letters carved into stone






We’re informed that our story is set in the mid 14th Century and that a new deadly disease is spreading across Europe to England, called the Black Death.


The song ends, there’s a loud crash of thunder then a bell rings, like a death knell. A black and white image of a full moon appears with dark black clouds moving swiftly across it. It’s an eerie image as if from an old Universal horror or Val Lewton movie.


We see a child’s face, androgynous, long fringe, sleepy-eyed with their head partially covered. I’m immediately reminded of Bresson’s Mouchette, another child with a somewhat androgynous appearance and sullen expression.


The song starts again and the child raises their face towards the moon glowing brightly behind the dark heavy grey clouds. Is the moon guiding him like the children in Night of the Hunter? Another loud crash of thunder and the music rises in crescendo, the child seems half awake, is he dreaming? Are we part of his dream or is this a premonition?


There’s a colour image of a group of people stood high above the top of a ravine carrying flame lit torches. One of them throws a torch and the camera follows its trajectory as it twists and turns on its descent. Is this Ward’s “bone” from 2001: A Space Odyssey that leads us from past to present?


We’re back to black and white and the child’s face looms large in the foreground of the frame with the full moon contrasted in the background. He’s dreaming again.


A group of people gathers near where the torch has fallen.


The black and white image of the child re-appears, a profile shot of his head in the foreground with the moon, clouds and a mountainous terrain in the background. He’s staring into the sky, then his head drops suddenly as if he’s fallen into a deep sleep.


A colour scene of a group of men in a tunnel with a cart, struggling to push it. Cut to a scene of water, a lake maybe? Gushing water on the soundtrack fills our ears. Then there’s the sound of the bell again and the camera pans up to a church and it’s steeple.


Black and white, a boy is wandering through the snow with his hat pulled down over his eyes, arms outstretched as if playing a game of blind man’s bluff. Is this our child we’ve been seeing from the start?


Dramatic music and voices in unison, a Gregorian chant. We see a man climbing a ladder then a dramatic image of a church in the foreground, time lapse photography of clouds passing by it at speed with the image tinted by a deep blue filter.


There’s a brief cut back to a black and white image of the boy’s eyes looking scared before we are back atop the church steeple with the climbing man shrouded in a dark cloak. For a brief moment it’s Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev.


The camera glides quickly up the stairs as we try to reach the steeple. The image is intercut with that of the cloaked man’s fingers slipping and losing their grip on the rung of the ladder. Black and white shot of the boy’s eyes looking shocked as the man’s body is swept off the church roof and plummets to the ground like the lit torch in the ravine, extinguishing his life.


Cut to the silhouetted image of a man hoisting up a large metal cross and then a casket being pushed into the water. What’s in the casket? Is it the body of the cloaked man?


We see an image of the gold cross reflected in the water; gold against the black murky water, rippling.


Finally we are back to the grainy black and white image of the boy’s face, his eyes closed but slowly opening. The camera pulls back and we see that he is standing in a lake, his body gently moving with the current of the water, dressed in a black shawl and hat. We see an image of his face reflected in the water, the sound of water echoes on the soundtrack. First muffled but gradually becoming clearer as if we are in the mind of the boy and he’s awakening from a dream to reality. Children’s voices can be heard, the boy’s eyes slowly start to open, a snowball hits him clean in the face and he is awake.




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