PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN, written, directed and co-produced by erudite stylist Albert Lewin, didn’t stir much wake in 1951. Its heady brew of romance and myth sailed over the heads of such audiences who showed up, and suffered slights from stuffy critics who sniff-sniped over Lewin’s cross-disciplinary fantasy muse, with most positive remarks confined to the films visual aspects. Decades-on rediscovery and reappraisal (Martin Scorsese leading the way) unveils a hypnotic love & fate saga, stunningly pictorial, and daring enough to mix elements from literary, metaphysical, and legendary veins together with modern cultural mores and pursuits.
“Because we live in a time that has no faith in legends, we live in a time that has no faith.”
Spain, the early 1930s. Selfish playgirl ‘Pandora Reynolds’ (Ava Gardner) could as well go by Circe or Lorelei, given the allure she holds for men, at various points in the story willing to destroy treasured possessions, other men, even their own lives, for want of her. It would almost take someone out of the ordinary to tame her temptressing. Will it be unperturbed British automobile daredevil ‘Stephen Cameron’ (Nigel Patrick), arrogant, impetuous Spanish bullfighter ‘Juan Montalvo’ (Mario Cabré) or possibly the mannered, strangely reserved Dutch yachtsman ‘Hendrik van der Zee’ (James Mason), who arrives out of nowhere?
Lewin’s screenplay wraps his characters in a web of Greek myth, Shakespearean drama, German legend (Wagner’s 1843 opera “The Flying Dutchman”), Romantic poetry, a twist of Heinrich Heine (the idea of a captain who can only set foot on land every seven years to seek redemption through a faithful woman), and Surrealist imagery, laced with flamenco, bullfighting, nightclub jazz and a race car doing 250mph down a beach! On fire!
“Let mortal fools live in a wicked world. Faith is a lie and God himself is chaos!…Faith is a lie and heaven a deception!…A man might have immortal life and wander for all the generations of man, over all the oceans of the world. Let him sail to the end of doomsday! He will find no woman faithful and fair. If this be folly, and upon me proved, then let the Divinity that I reject, make what sport He will – of my immortal soul!
Backdrop! Filming was done in Spain, at the then-small seaside community of Tosse de Mar, on the Costa Brava, the ancient Mediterranean site graced by medieval architecture and littered with time-defying Roman statuary. A perfect setting for glorious Technicolor cinematography in the hands of a master like Jack Cardiff: besides capturing those atmosphere-drenched surroundings, he’d free rein from the Ava-besotted director to showcase her ravishing 28-year-old beauty in close-ups that are proof positive why so many guys went gaga over her. Mason, 41, was no slouch in the attraction department, either, and they both give intense, delicately inflected (and absurdly underrated) performances. *
The $1,250,000 production did fairly well in Britain, but came and went in the U.S., a gross of $3,600,000 only grazing 102nd place for the year. Meanwhile, Gardner had a huge hit with the remake of Show Boat and Mason nocked a solid winner as The Desert Fox.
The other cast members caught up in Pandora’s fateful passage: Harold Warrender, Sheila Sim, Marius Goring, John Laurie, Pamela Mason (the star’s wife), and Abraham Sofaer. Good music score from Alan Rawsthorne. 122 minutes.
* Playing the bullfighter, former teroro Mario Cabré went balístico over Gardner; they had an affair, which was no big deal to her, but for him it went to the point where he was close to visiting sharp-object injury upon Ava’s equally jealous boyfriend Frank Sinatra. She and Frank would tie the knot late in ’51; Cabré (1916-1990) went on to publish 20 books of poetry.
Cardiff: “Of course, Lewin thought Ava was a goddess. He thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and he used to just gaze and gaze at her. And we would shoot her, and he would say ‘I want to do another close-up. Closer.’ And we would do that.And then he would say, ‘Let’s do another one. Different angle’….He couldn’t stop himself.”
Life, love, determination and duty—after death, a popular theme of the war-sundered time: Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Heaven Can Wait, A Guy Named Joe, A Matter of Life and Death, The Ghost And Mrs. Muir, The Bishop’s Wife, Portrait of Jennie.