As Thomas Wolfe famously wrote, “you can’t go home again,” and at least three splendidly sad middle-aged experiences prove this axiom: visiting your childhood home (it’ll seem so much smaller and shabbier than you remember it), meeting the girl you had a crush on in high school (she won’t have aged well, trust me), and watching a film you haven’t seen for 25 or 30 years, but always recalled as being really, really good. A film doesn’t age, it will be exactly the same film it was the first time you saw it. If it doesn’t seem the same, it’s you that has aged, your perception has changed, and that’s rather sad to think about.
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is one of those “memorable” movies of mine, unseen for decades, but fondly remembered as special, indeed. Fortunately, it’s now been released in a genuinely beautiful restored version on DVD, with Jack Cardiff’s astounding Technicolour photography in all its glory. Unfortunately, the visual aspects of this film are its strongest point—what I remembered as a brooding, tragic fantasy seems stiff and awkward at times, only sporadically achieving true emotional power. I gnashed my teeth futilely, thinking “this could have been so much better!” The script, casting, and performances share equal blame for the film’s shortcomings.
In 1930, a small Spanish fishing village hosts a tiny expatriate community, including American nightclub singer Pandora, British archeologist Geoffrey and his grown niece Janet, wealthy automotive engineer Stephen (another Brit), and alcoholic poet Reggie, among others. Reggie commits suicide after Pandora turns down his marriage proposal. Stephen then makes his bid to win Pandora’s hand: she dares him to destroy his most prized possession, the car with which he hopes to break the land-speed record, and he willingly pushes it off a cliff into the sea. Pandora agrees to marry him in six months. However, that same night she spots a strange yacht in the harbour and swims out to it, meeting the enigmatic Hendrik van der Zee on board. He’s just completed a painting of the legendary Pandora, who strongly resembles his unexpected guest, although they’d never met before.
Pandora is intrigued by Hendrik, but remains officially engaged to Stephen over the next few months. Hendrik joins her “set,” and makes friends with Geoffrey, who is impressed with the Dutch visitor’s knowledge of antiquity. One day, Geoffrey asks Hendrik to translate an old manuscript allegedly written by the “Flying Dutchman.” Several hundred years before, a Dutch sea captain mistakenly thought his wife had been unfaithful to him, and he murdered her. Taken before a court, he then challenged God—if he existed—to punish him. The captain miraculously escapes execution, then learns he’s been cursed to sail the seas for eternity for his crime, until such time as he finds a woman who loves him enough to die for him. Every seven years he can spend six months ashore in search of this woman. Geoffrey realises Hendrik is the Flying Dutchman.
Hendrik and Pandora fall in love, but he brusquely rejects her affection so she won’t sacrifice her life to end his curse. Meanwhile, Pandora is being courted by bullfighter Montalvo, a former lover. Montalvo, correctly discerning Pandora loves Hendrik (not Stephen), jealously stabs Hendrik to death, but the Dutchman returns to life. His sudden appearance the next day startles Montalvo, who is fatally gored in the bullring as a result.
On Hendrik’s last night in port, Geoffrey tells Pandora the truth. She swims out to the becalmed yacht once more, and she and Hendrik are reunited. A storm blows up and sinks the boat: Hendrik and Pandora’s bodies are discovered by fishermen the next morning.
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman has an appropriately moody and romantic plot, but the script fails to convey much emotion. The voiceover narration by Geoffrey is forced and clumsy (the film is told in flashback, after the opening sequence in which the two drowned bodies are found) rather than dramatic or foreboding (in fact, it could have been dispensed with altogether). Two hours long, the picture spends far too much time on incidentals (an extended sequence of Stephen breaking the speed record, for instance) and skimps on the drama: Pandora and Hendrik share only three decent scenes (their introduction, the scene in which Pandora declares her love for him and Hendrik rejects her, and the final scene on his yacht), but there isn’t a lot of chemistry or passion evident otherwise.
In fact, the roles of Pandora and Hendrik are not especially well-written nor performed. James Mason seems far too stolid, physically and emotionally, to play the cursed sea captain. It’s difficult to feel his pain, and after his first appearance—urbanely wearing a smoking jacket, painting Pandora’s portrait in the luxurious cabin of his ghost-yacht—he never again looks or acts very romantic, or dashing, or tormented. Mason was in his early forties at the time, and while he was no stranger to brooding roles, in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman he seems more like a puffy-faced investment banker on holiday than a ghostly lover.
Ava Gardner looks marvelous—the Technicolour photography highlights her distinctive beauty, especially the exquisite bone structure of her face, and naturally she’s given a variety of stunning gowns to wear—but Pandora’s role is even more under-written than Hendrik’s (at least Hendrik gets a long flashback explaining his history, Pandora merely talks about her past). Is she supposed to be frivolous, world-weary, jaded, cruel, flirtatious, promiscuous, romantic, bitter? All of the above? Why is she living in a small Spanish village now? At one point Pandora says she recognises she has been cruel and selfish towards others in her past life, but now she’s not that way (so much). Except, of course, she remains “engaged” to Stephen (although she’s in love with Hendrik) but treats him in a rather condescending manner. Only very briefly does she drop her brittle, false front and express her inner feelings, but it’s too little, too late.
Thus, despite the film being called Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, neither titular character is explored in any particular depth. The motto of the film is “the measure of love is what one is willing to give up for it,” but there’s too little passion on display here. For a film about a love so powerful that one person (Hendrik) is willing to sacrifice his chance for salvation for it (by rejecting Pandora), while the other person is willing to sacrifice her life for it (to save Hendrik’s soul), Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is disappointingly bloodless. Mason is miscast and Gardner can’t overcome the script.
The other roles aren’t fleshed out either, though Geoffrey is adequate enough in the role of “neutral observer,” someone who—by virtue of his age—can befriend Pandora without succumbing to her, romantically or sexually. Stephen is a cipher, used and abused by Pandora (in turn, he is worshipped by Geoffrey’s niece Janet), and Montalvo is little more than a stereotypical macho “Latin lover” who speaks ungrammatical English and has a superstitious, fortune-telling gypsy mother.
In addition to the luminous colour photography, lovely locations, meticulously designed and dressed sets, and stylish costumes, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman contains a few other points of interest as a film.
The script is structured with some attempt at symmetry. The framing story bookends the narrative proper; Pandora and Hendrik are together twice on his yacht, scenes which have certain consistent aspects (Pandora swims there nude, and is given a robe by Hendrik; his portrait of Pandora is prominent in both sequences); Pandora indirectly causes the death of Reggie early in the film, and Montalvo late in the movie; Hendrik reads the original manuscript of his legend in Geoffrey’s rooms, and Geoffrey turns on a desk lamp—later, in the same room, Pandora reads Geoffrey’s translation of Hendrik’s story and turns on the desk lamp to do so; Hendrik murdered his wife (who looks exactly like Pandora) and in the end, Pandora willingly gives up her life for him; and so on.
There are also a few curiously eccentric moments in the film. In her first scene, Pandora plays the piano and sings a song for Reggie in a natural, unaffected manner (apparently Ava Gardner did her own vocals here). Later, a wild party spills onto the beach, jazz band included, and there is an amusing shot of a saxophone player reclining on the sand next to a ancient statue whose nude buttocks are pointing at the camera. This sequence also includes a strange bit in which a young woman giggles at an earnest young man, then stands on her head to reveal striped knickers.
Although set in 1930, no real attempt is made to evoke a particular time period: other than a few vintage automobiles, the costumes, hairstyles, and so forth are wholly contemporary. Furthermore, no particular explanation is given for Hendrik’s modern yacht (and clothing), which operates with a phantom crew: when he was first cursed, he escaped on his own ship, a 16th or 17th-century vessel. His crew vanished, but being the Flying Dutchman, Hendrik doesn’t need no stinking sailors, the sails raise and lower themselves and the ship keeps itself on course magically (but not even Hendrik can conjure up enough wind to get him out of the harbour before Pandora swims out to his yacht the second time). However, these are minor complaints which may be brushed aside without too much strain. The cardboard protagonists and their tepid interactions cannot be overlooked so easily.
Though Pandora and the Flying Dutchman disappointed me to a certain extent—I’d come prepared for a grand romantic drama, about a love which transcends life and death and time, and so on and so forth—I’m glad I was able to see it again after so many, many years, and in all its Technicolour splendour. The images on the screen are awesome, of that you can be sure. It’s unfortunate they’re pressed into the service of a script so bland, but the sheer beauty of the cinematography was definitely worth two hours of my life.