One of the epic star vehicles of Ava Gardner‘s career earned a nice restoration a couple of years back. So if nothing else, Ava at her peak in glorious Technicolor should be lure enough to draw one to “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.”
The film pairs her up with James Mason in the other title role, surrounds them with solid British and Spanish supporting players, and became one of the rare films directed by Golden Age studio executive Albert Lewin, most famous for “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Moon and Sixpence.”
It’s a dreamy tale of doomed romance, a scenic fantasy of the “Beauty and the Beast” order anchored in 1920s period piece reality recreated in Spain and coastal Wales. And while there are elements which date it and others which hobble the storytelling, there’s too much to admire to write it off.
“Pandora” is a classic Gardner character, a great beauty who enjoys men mostly as playthings to be toyed with. She’s a former nightclub singer who always seems to decorate the arm of someone wealthy, famous and who lives with risk.
That modus operandi is established when someone jokingly suggests she take an interest in dashing Stephen (Nigel Patrick), a racecar driver who has come to Esperanza in pre-Civil War Spain to set a land speed record on the beach there. Never mind that pretty Janet (Sheila Sim) dotes on him and plainly has her heart set on marrying him.
Pandora, the namesake of his race car, ensures poor Janet doesn’t stand a chance. Whatever Pandora wants, you know. She talks him into an impulsive dash about the countryside in his not-street-legal racer (simpler times) which ends with a cliffside proposal, and a cliffside dare. Will he give up everything, or his race car, for her? By Jove, he will!
Damned if they aren’t engaged to marry, but at her suggestion, a ways off. He has to A) retrieve the wrecked (and sunken) car, restore it and race it down the beach. They’ll marry just after that, giving Pandora an implied out. There won’t be a marriage if his open-wheel/open-topped race car kills him.
But in the distance there’s an anchored sailing ketch that figures to also have a role in this wedding to come. Pandora’s next impulse is to strip and swim out to it. That sort of thing happened a lot in the Jazz Age.
That’s how Pandora meets the Dutchman, played by that beautiful brooder Mason. She is seductive and playful, he is distant and dreamy. One can smell the romance, gardenias, sea spray and doom in the air.
A prologue has told us all we need to know of the legend of the Flying Dutchman, a condemned man doomed to roam the seas, coming ashore every seven years to see if there’s one woman who will love him enough to die for him and put him out of his eternal-life agony.
“The measure of love is what one is willing to give up for it,” we hear from our English academic observer Geoffrey Fielding (Harold Warrender), who also narrates the tale. This Henrik van der Zee, Fielding observes straight away, “is not like other men.”
Geoffrey sees Pandora’s effect on men, watches the broken Reggie (Marius Goring) drink himself to death right in front of the unattainable Pandora and takes in her capture of Stephen.
“Why do you make yourself out so bad?” he rhetorically asks the man-eater.
“I don’t have to. I leave that to others.”
But this Dutchman is a wild card Geoffrey can’t readily size up. As Pandora acknowledges her token of troth to Stephen, she can’t help but carry on — in generally genteel, if a tad “open-minded” ways — with Hendrik. Because the brooding mystery of the man is irresistible, he’s got a seriously posh yacht and there’s a Byronic doom hanging on his every pronouncement.
“Faith is a lie and heaven is a deception.”
As if things aren’t romantically-tangled enough, “the most famous matador (Mario Cabré) in all of Spain” returns to his hometown, to his fretful fortune telling Gypsy mother and to the singing temptress who got away, Pandora. A man who uses daggers and swords and makes his living killing bulls isn’t to be trifled with.
It is Geoffrey the archeologist and collector of folklore who starts to piece all this together, narrating as he does from some presumed point in the future. There is this legend, and an ancient sailor’s journal Geoffrey has found, written in Dutch, that’s a tad too familiar to the mysterious yachtsman.
Will Geoffrey figure it out? Is Pandora up to sacrificing herself for this mysterious man? Should she be? Will Geoffrey warn her? Or will he stand back and watch the racing driver risk his neck, the matador put on an alarming bullfight to a command audience of Pandora and Geoffrey, preferring not to interfere with the affairs of “you rich people?”
Lewin, who based the script on the writings of Omar Khayyam and 18th century writer and “transported” to Australia hustler George Barrington, conjures up a spell in this soundstages-and-Costa Brava fantasy. He makes great use of Spanish and Welsh locations and cinematographer Jack Cardiff serves up arresting and inventive screen compositions, including an artfully/whimsically-shot Jazz Age/jazz band party on the beach.
Gardner has an icy allure here, beguiling in a less overtly-sexual sense than her signature roles. The attraction to The Dutchman is more scripted and “fated” than anything we sense in the way of on-screen chemistry or “heat.” But we believe it because the fantasy never lets go of the sense that all this simply “must be,” as the story has repeated itself every seven years for hundreds of years.
Yet all that appreciation runs up against a fatal flaw that not so much dates “Pandora” as violates cinema’s first order of business, –telling the story with images.
The gorgeous “Pandora” is marred by an incessant and generally superfluous voice-over narration by Geoffrey — not merely shoveling out exposition, first scene to last — or filling in back-story — but stating the too-obvious in scene after scene. We’ve already witnessed a great screen actor getting across precisely the whirl of emotions a screen moment requires. Why tell us “He seemed rapt. Transported to another world. I sensed an almost desperate ecstasy in his enjoyment?”
This goes on and on to a maddening degree, passing beyond any “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again” sense of “Let me tell you a tale” and beating the viewer about the ears with the always mesmerizing, too-often inane or at least redundant musings read by Warrender.
That sea of purple prose and poesy somewhat dulls the poignancy of the Dutchman, doomed to search the world for a faithful woman, and of the bittersweet fate of “Pandora Reynolds – the secret goddess whom all men in their hearts desire.” It doesn’t spoil this classic, but it does turn an epic love story to a film that the viewer can too-easily keep at arm’s length, never wholly embracing or falling under its spell.
Rating: “approved,” TV-PG, violence
Cast: Ava Gardner, James Mason, Harold Warrender, Sheila Sim, Nigel Patrick, Mario Cabré and Marius Goring.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Albert Lewin. An International Film Distributors release on Tubi, Amazon and other platforms.
Running time: 2:03