Co-produced by MGM and Romulus Films - which had just been founded and went on to produce many highlights of British cinema throughout the 50s and 60s (from Cosh Boy to Oliver!) - Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is an unusual film that seems foreign to both Hollywood and British cinema. It was directed by Albert Lewin whose literary pretensions - great adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray and Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence - are in evidence here.
The story is a bizarre mix of 18th-century maritime legend and Greek mythology narrated by Geoffrey Fielding, a professor of antiquities played by Harold Warrender. James Mason is Hendrick van der Zee, the legendary ‘Flying Dutchman’ cursed to sail the stormy seas eternally alone until he finds a woman who loves him enough to die for him. The subject matter certainly seems more suited to a Wagner opera than a Hollywood melodrama. But replacing the phantom ship with a Mediterranean yacht and adding a glamorous community of expats living in Spain somehow turns the preposterous into something quite magical and full of adventure. Alongside a romance across the centuries we have an attempt at the world land-speed record, a romantically distracted bull-fighter, a gypsy flamenco band and a Tudor-period flashback. Ava Gardner is perfectly cast as the beautiful but emotionally cold object of desire that has men drinking cyanide when rejected and wrecking cars to prove their love. And James Mason does a good job at appearing mysterious and three centuries old.
From the opening quotation from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam claiming that ‘what is written cannot be erased’ (or something along those lines) and the discovery of two drowned bodies hand in hand, a strong sense of fate permeates through the film (which is told in flashback). But the other-worldly feel on which this ridiculous tale somehow stands should perhaps really be credited to Jack Cardiff’s cinematography (even more beautiful than Ava Gardner). Reputed to be the first Briton trained in the use of Technicolor, he was perhaps its greatest exponent. The heavy use of coloured filters gives the film something of the oppressive, enchanting air he gave to Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (for which Cardiff rightly won an Oscar). The characters seem more surely trapped by fate than any noir anti-hero.
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman treads the line between profound and baloney somewhat awkwardly. But it is great to see a film that has such a sense of the magical without falling into the tweeness of Chocolat or the CGI overload of The Lovely Bones. Yes, it is a little bit pretentious - aiming for eternal truths is not really what we expect of MGM - but it clearly illustrates why Jack Cardiff was so deserving of his recent retrospective at the BFI.