“The measure of love is what one is willing to give up for it.”
With the end of the Second World War, American film companies began to reinvest in films co-produced by them and made in England with British crews and predominantly British casts. MGM had a notable history of such productions before the war with such items as The Citadel (1938) and Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), both with Robert Donat. After the war, Twentieth Century Fox led the way and it was not until about 1950 that MGM once again became active. One of their early such offerings was Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), produced, written and directed by Albert Lewin. Ava Gardner and James Mason (who was then living and working in Hollywood) were tapped as the “American” content, with the rest of the cast either British or Spanish. Most significantly, the film was produced in Technicolor with cinematography by the renowned Jack Cardiff who had been responsible for Black Narcissus (1947, Britain) and The Red Shoes (1948, Britain).
Previously available on both VHS and laserdisc, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman has now been brought out on DVD by Kino International, under license from The Douris Corporation.
Pandora Reynolds, a young American woman, is part of a group of apparently wealthy and mainly British expatriates living in Esperanza, a fishing town on the coast of Spain. She is a woman with whom all men seem to fall hopelessly in love, more for her beauty than anything else. She herself seems incapable of loving anyone and is unmoved when one of the group commits suicide because of her. Later, however, she agrees to marry Stephen Cameron, a racing car driver, when he pushes his car off a cliff into the ocean as proof of his devotion to her. Soon thereafter, Pandora is intrigued by a yacht that she sees anchored outside the harbour. She swims out to it and comes upon the owner, a young Dutchman named Hendrick van der Zee. Pandora finds herself strangely attracted to him. Unknown to her, however, Hendrick is the Flying Dutchman, a man who was condemned centuries ago to roam the seas because of his sins. Every seven years, though, he is able to live as a human being for six months. If he can win the love of a woman who is willing to die for him, he will finally be able to rest in peace. Pandora may be that woman.
I’d say Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is very much a “mood” picture, as in your mood at the time you see it rather than the mood or tone that the film conveys. For 1951, it was a long film at over two hours in length. Due to that length and the languid way in which some of it is acted, it can be a very long two hours if you’re not in the right frame of mind. If you are, however, I think it’s a picture that can be quite enjoyable.
One of its great strengths is James Mason. Now let me say up front that I’m an admirer of James Mason’s work in general. His actual film choices were sometimes unwise, but he nearly always made more of his roles than they often warranted. As the Flying Dutchman, Mason conveys both a sense of mystery and despair. His Hendrick has a dark, brooding air to him that prevents all from getting close, except of course Pandora. In her, Hendrick sees the potential end to his ceaseless wandering, yet he knows what such an end would require from Pandora — an ultimate sacrifice that he is unprepared to accept from her at first. It’s a difficult role to pull off convincingly, partly because there’s a somewhat mystical nature to it and the way it’s been written requires lengthy thoughtful pauses or poetic recitations by the character at times. It’s much to Mason’s credit that he can make Hendrick almost totally believable in the face of such needs.
Ava Gardner is another matter. Here she looks beautiful, but that’s about all that’s on offer. Her performance is more a series of poses than a heartfelt interpretation of a potentially doomed character. Her interpretation of Pandora is not bad during the film’s first half. She’s a beautiful if shallow woman, much in demand by handsome, shallow men. But when required to match Mason’s depth and intensity in the second half, she’s not up to it and you almost feel sorry that Mason’s Hendrick has no other choice than Gardner’s Pandora to be his salvation.
Mind you, poses aren’t all bad, and Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor cinematography is gorgeous, showing off Ava Gardner to distinct advantage. Pausing the old DVD player at certain points in the film when Ava is framed beautifully is well worth your while. Cardiff’s excellent work goes beyond his attention to Ava Gardner, however. Most of the interior scenes are drop-dead gorgeous as are the establishing shots of Esperanza.
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman was not particularly well-received when it opened, on either side of the Atlantic. The feeling seemed to be that the script was at best rather pretentious and at worst unbelievably fantastic. One can understand the criticism of “pretentiousness” somewhat for the film does seem to be trying too hard to seem intellectual at times, but the issue of “fantasy” less so. After all, the script was what it was, a fantasy taking the “Flying Dutchman” legend to one possible conclusion. It didn’t try to suggest it was anything more than a fantasy, so to complain about its mysticism or “daftness” as some put it makes little sense. I suspect that more modern audiences accustomed to the literary fantasy genre would be more accepting.
Kino’s DVD of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman generally does quite well by the film. It’s apparently been mastered from a British 35mm Technicolor print. Much of the colour is startlingly beautiful and faithfully rendered, particularly the interiors and the daytime exteriors. The night-time sequences are often too dark, however, with virtually no shadow detail evident. The source print is subject to speckling and some scratches from time to time, but it’s certainly not distracting when it does occur. There are, too, some instances where there are shifts in colour intensity that are noticeable, but for a film that hasn’t been restored, the DVD looks quite good overall. Knowing that Jack Cardiff’s cinematography is one of the film’s selling points, I’d say the DVD definitely conveys why that is true. The audio (mono) is in quite acceptable shape for a film of this age.
One must look at the supplement component of the disc with some measure of dis-satisfaction. A rather beat-up original theatrical trailer has been included (with a short out-of-the-ordinary intro by Hedda Hopper) and that would seem to be all. But not quite! Hidden, for some unknown reason, at the end of the list of chapters is an alternate beginning to the film. This is not mentioned on the packaging, neither inside nor out, but only on the on-screen menu. It turns out that for the American release of the film, just after the opening credits, a different prologue is used. On the British version, a quotation from “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” is shown. It’s worth quoting here, for it’s a wonderful comment on the film’s story:
The moving finger writes:
and having writ,
Moves on: Nor all thy piety
Shall lure it back to cancel
half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out
a word of it.
The American version, however, omits this and substitutes a few phrases explaining the legend of the Flying Dutchman, almost as if American audiences were not accorded enough intelligence to appreciate the Rubaiyat quotation. The change is a real loss for the American release version in my opinion, and including it on the DVD is one of those things that makes DVD so great. Why on earth Kino felt they needed to hide it is beyond me.
I found Pandora and the Flying Dutchman to be a very rewarding film. It does require patience and attention and the right state of mind to fully appreciate it. So if you’re just sitting down looking for a couple of mindless hours of entertainment, this is definitely not the film to choose. James Mason devotees should enjoy the film as will any who appreciate the skill of Jack Cardiff.
Kino’s DVD version, although rather lacking in supplementary material and guilty of hiding part of its supplementary light under a barrel, does a pretty good job in presenting the Technicolor glories of the film. It’s no Singin’ in the Rain as far as a DVD Technicolor transfer is concerned, but then what is?