The Navigators opens with a group of railroad workers repairing a length of track. One of the men is clearly a lookout, ensuring the safety of the others. The crew move easily, accustomed to one another, and with the confidence of men who do their jobs well. In the closing scene, set a few weeks later, the men are reunited, but this time they're working in near darkness, it's raining, and they are hauling cement, awkwardly and precariously, over a railroad bridge and onto the track. There is no one to look out for them. The sheltering code of comradery that once characterized their labors--and that extended to the families of their fellow workers--has been obliterated by the brave new world of privatization.
The U.S. premiere of The Navigators at the 2002 Human Rights Film Festival last June also marked the presentation of the Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award to its director, Ken Loach. The British filmmaker used the occasion to describe the toll exacted on Iraqi children by the American embargo. Loach's ardent, indefatigable commitment to human rights hasn't produced a large body of work--11 feature films since 1967--but it nevertheless reflects a surprisingly complete record of the consequences of Britain's and America's oppressive domestic and foreign policies. In The Navigators, Loach turns his lens on British Rail after the 1993 Railways Act, which privatized the company and led to layoffs, as well as to the suspension of negotiated contracts.
Set in a South Yorkshire train yard headed by depot boss Harpic (a reference to Homer's vengeful "harpies"?), the film tells the stories of the men and their families deracinated by a sudden corporate takeover. Mick (Tom Craig) can't stop reciting the safety rules of his defunct union to his diffident new employers, nor can he absorb the social and familial pressures created by the hourly contract work he's now performing. From the janitor who must bid on his job in order to keep it, to the ineffectual Harpic (Sean Glenn) unable to get his mind or his mouth around the new terminology of productivity, to Paul (Joe Duttine) who must choose between contract work and time with his children, Loach leaves no imagined human conflict unexpressed. His largely amateur cast give sublime performances, and Loach's keen eye maps the gritty, sometimes oppressive aura of the depot and working-class Yorkshire with poetic symmetry.
Loach's characters, like those in The Navigators, are both archetypes of the proletariat, and capacious spirits, flesh-and-blood men and women who inspire pathos and admiration. Their struggles in this film, parochial yet familiar--the script was written by a former British rail employee--allow the filmmaker to explore every dimension of the effect of a corporate takeover so lucidly that the movie is simply the final word on the evils of private industry. For Loach, the history of plutocracies, of repression, racism and poverty, is inseparable from the spiritual and psychic struggles of ordinary people. He said in a 1998 interview with FJI that to suffer an injustice is terrible, but "for it to be hidden" is intolerable. In The Navigators, a eulogy to the evanescent unionized worker, Loach makes another unforgettable entry in his celluloid memory book of crimes committed against the human spirit.