Ko-Fi Request: ‘Pandora and the Flying Dutchman’

This article was based on a request from one of my patrons on ko-fi. For $3, you can recommend a film for me to watch and write an article about! Visit this link if interested!

“Weird” isn’t the word you use to describe most UK studio pictures of the 1950s. Great as many of these films are, it’s not a period one associates with much formal experimentation. Pandora and the Flying Dutchman isn’t weird, per se, but it’s several steps removed from the standard of its contemporaries. It’s a bit more willing to move into the realm of the surreal, and that little bit makes all the difference.

Directed by Albert Lewin, who made few other films and is far from a recognizable auteur, Pandora is the first ko-fi request I’ve gotten for a film I’ve never heard of before. Stars Ava Gardner and James Mason were far more familiar to me, but this is far from their most-seen work. It was actually made prior to Gardner’s breakout role in Show Boat. I’ve never heard anyone talk about this film. Despite its presence on the streaming site Filmstruck, it seems to have been somewhat lost to history. That’s a shame, because Pandora is actually quite good.

The film concerns a group of British expats living in Spain, all of whom are obsessed with the beautiful and enigmatic Pandora (Gardner). Pandora rebuffs most of their advances, and only agrees to marry the rather dull Stephen (Nigel Patrick) after he pushes his prized racecar off a cliff to prove his love to her. It’s after this that she meets the mysterious Hendrick van der Zee (Mason), the sole occupant of a boat that has just appeared in the harbor. A series of events leads Pandora to conclude that Hendrick is actually the fabled Flying Dutchman, the ghostly captain doomed to sail the seas for eternity unless he can find a woman willing to give her life for him.

Mason is the real standout here, his typically clipped speech filled with the weight of his unbearable melancholy. He plays up the tragedy of the Dutchman’s plight, contra the usual portrayal of the mythic character as something more monstrous. It’s a tender and genuinely moving performance.

Pandora does drag a little in its second half. The addition of a cocky Spanish bullfighter who plays romantic rival to Hendrick is contrived and boring. I was amused by the end of this subplot, though. The bullfighter believes he has killed Hendrick, and is so surprised to see him in the stands at his fight the following day that he’s gored by a bull and killed. He’s not a very good character, but I liked how he went out.

The film was shot by Jack Cardiff, who worked with the great Powell and Pressburger on some of their best films, like The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. Cardiff’s work is a far cry from the drab and simple output of so many of his contemporaries. His setups are dynamic and angular, often deemphasizing performers’ gestures in order to focus on their surroundings. He really goes to town in the lengthy sequence halfway through in which Hendrick recounts the legend of the Flying Dutchman. It’s so much more dynamic than I expected from a forgotten film of the era.

That’s my contemporary bias showing, I guess. While I’ll never assume that an older film is worse for its age, watching Pandora I was forced to admit that I’d gone in with some unfair preconceptions. I let the film’s lack of canonization lead me to assume that it would be less worthwhile, which is a manner of thinking I thought I’d rid myself of long ago. You’ll have to forgive me. It’s just that there are so many bad films throughout history. The odds weren’t in its favor. I know I risk losing some credibility by admitting this, but i thought it best to be honest about my reaction. We could all do with losing some rigidity in our approach to films.