Pandora and the Flying Dutchman: Fisher of Men, by David Bax
In many cases, when a restoration as extensive as the one of Albert Lewin’s 1951 Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (opening here in Los Angeles on Friday at the Laemmle Royal) is undertaken, it’s because the movie is an undisputed classic and not an oddball studio picture of middling box office success and little historical fanfare. But, in this case, a project that started over a decade ago with the Film Foundation and finally finished last year with the help of the Cohen Film Collection–restoring Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor cinematography with stunning depth and clarity, apart from a noticeable drop in quality in optical shots–is a wonderful way to discover this lush, idiosyncratic, oneiric gem.
Ava Gardner plays Pandora, a woman with a surplus of money and men’s attention who spends her days lounging half-bored on the Spanish coast with other shiftless aristocrats. Then, one day, a new boat pulls into port carrying Hendrik (James Mason), a brooding Dutchman who captures Pandora’s interest as well as that of resident archaeologist Geoffrey Fielding (Harold Warrender), who notices how Hendrik’s circumstances seem to line up puzzlingly with those of the legend of the Flying Dutchman, damned to sail the seas forever with a brief respite on land every seven years to find a true love to break the curse.
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is no swashbuckling, seafaring adventure (though a bullfighting sequence late in the picture offers some thrillingly tense action). Rather it’s the type of darkly fantastic tall tale you might hear told by a lovelorn old salt at a dockside bar.
That said, it’s not really a love story, either, though it certainly bears the facade of one. Instead, this is more of a gothic-tinged tale of romantic miserablism. Everyone is beautifully, luridly unhappy, like the characters in a Lana Del Rey song. The film is littered with dark visions like a matador practicing in an empty coliseum at dusk while a couple of acquaintance who don’t really like him half-heartedly cheer him on from the depopulated bleachers. Like all the idle rich in this picturesque town, they’re just trying to feel something. At least they don’t get their kicks on destructiveness like Pandora, who insists one suitor push his beloved race car off a cliff to prove his devotion. Hendrik’s curse–if he is who he says he is–can be broken by Pandora’s love but, up to the end, there’s no way to be sure if she really has feelings for him or if she’s just a messy broad who lives for drama.
If that describes you, though, you’ll love Pandora and the Flying Dutchman no matter what the onscreen Pandora’s motivations are. Cardiff is as painterly and sumptuous on the gorgeous sets, bobbing the camera up and down almost imperceptibly on board Hendrik’s boat, as he is on the stunning locations.
In those, he and Lewin favor profiles and silhouettes. Notably, these are not only of the characters but often of the ruined statues Geoffrey has spent his career hauling out of the sea. Like the shattered icon of Ozymandias, these are tragic reminders of past glory. In a way, so is the seemingly undead Hendrik, sailing the seas for centuries. But his tale of love and sacrifice, just like those of the former humans now immortalized in those decrepit sculptures, lives on in the legends of song and story and, in this case, one unforgettable movie.