This Christmas our ‘home cinema’ treat was Pandora and the Flying Dutchman projected from the Park Circus DVD (2010). This is one of those almost unclassifiable films that divides audiences but demands to be seen one day by any cinephile. There are for me three primary reasons to watch the film. First is the Technicolor cinematography of Jack Cardiff. Second and third are the performances by James Mason and Ava Gardner. But there are other aspects of the film worth exploring as well.
The narrative is a version of the traditional story of ‘The Flying Dutchman’ combined with some classical references to the mythological figure of Pandora. It is set around 1930 on the Mediterranean coast of Spain – filming is said to have taken place around the resort of Tossa del Mar on the Costa Brava. A small group of wealthy British expats has a ‘colony’. One day a fishing boat returns to the beach with a gruesome catch, two bodies caught in the nets. A local British archaeologist Geoffrey Fielding (Harold Warrender) sums up the situation quickly and deals with the discovery. In his study he then ‘breaks the fourth wall’ and begins to tell the story of the last few months directly to camera. The rest of the narrative is then a long flashback.
At the centre of the colony is a young American singer, Pandora (Ava Gardner), whose beauty dazes the young men. She seems indifferent to the reactions she creates but she clearly enjoys the attention. She has already been involved with one young man with tragic results and now entrances another, but her attention is also turned towards a beautiful sailing ship moored off the coast. The ship carries a Dutchman, Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason). We never see any crew and the ship appears to sail itself. Eventually Pandora will entice the Dutchman ashore. What follows is a triangular battle for Pandora’s love. Before the Dutchman appeared she had agreed to marry Stephen (Nigel Patrick) who is attempting to set a world land-speed record in his beloved car named ‘Pandora’. A little later a Spanish bullfighter, ‘Juan Montalvo’ (Mario Cabré) also becomes intent on ‘taking’ Pandora as his wife. On one level this is a classic romantic melodrama.
The myth of ‘The Flying Dutchman’ arguably dates back to the Netherlands in the early 17th century. The name refers to the ship which is not accepted in any port and must sail the seven seas for ever. In the film, the Dutch captain is allowed ashore every seven years for a short period in which to find a mate. He will only be released from the curse if he finds a woman who is prepared to die for him. A flashback within the main flashback explains what happened to him in the 17th century. ‘Pandora’ in Greek mythology is the woman who unleashed all the human evils when she opened a vase (now usually described as a box). The film appears to ask the question about what happens if the Dutchman and Pandora fall in love with each other?
Although there is no discussion about the meaning of ‘Pandora’ in the film, there are several visual signifiers, some of which may be more obvious than others. Fielding (who offers a voiceover at various points) has various antiquities in his house and the beach and other parts of the immediate surroundings feature classical statues, some broken and some in good condition. Man Ray, the American Dadaist artist and photographer and friend of the producer-director Albert Lewin, sketched an image of Pandora in 1950 that appears to have been the inspiration for the painting that Hendrick is working on when Pandora first approaches him (image above).
Perhaps at this stage it is worth discussing the production background to the film. Lewin had been a scriptwriter and then senior executive at MGM, working in Hollywood since the 1920s. He had already directed three of his own scripts, all literary adaptations. For Pandora he set up a production company with Joseph Kaufmann that they named Dorkay. This company made a deal with MGM for North American distribution and presumably covered the fees for Ava Gardner and James Mason – he claims in his autobiography to have been allocated a small percentage of any profits on the film, but “did not receive a dime” (Before I Forget, James Mason 1981). The costs of production in Europe were met by Romulus Films, the company formed by John and James Woolf. This helped Romulus (and Remus Films) to begin a long successful run as a production company bringing Americans into UK productions – most notably on The African Queen in 1952. The Woolfs’ own distribution company Independent Film Distributors would distribute the film in the UK and Europe. The studio scenes were shot at Shepperton.
The film was to be made in Technicolor and in 1950 Jack Cardiff was arguably the best cinematographer for a Technicolor shoot. He had shot the three Powell and Pressburger films, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), winning the Oscar for Colour Photography for Black Narcissus. Cardiff had with him Ted Scaife as 2nd Unit photographer and Percy Day as ‘special effects’ photographer, both of whom had worked with him on at least one of the Powell and Pressburger productions. The film’s music was composed by Alan Rawsthorne who like John Bryan as production designer and Ralph Klempen as film editor were well-known as distinguished and experienced contributors to many of the British films of the 1940s. Mainly because of these familiar names behind the camera and in post-production I did think that this looked like an Archers production (Powell and Pressburger’s company). This feeling was compounded by the appearance in the cast of Marius Goring, Sheila Sim, John Laurie and Abraham Sofaer, all having appeared in a film by The Archers. James Mason’s wife Pamela Kellino completed the principal cast list. The fantasy and romance would have appealed to The Archers I think, but overall this doesn’t have the ‘feel’ of The Archers even if it has the look.
In the US, MGM had contracted Ava Gardner as a teenager in 1941 on the basis of her stunning beauty, but the studio was concerned about her ability to carry a picture. She was loaned out to other studios or given the lead in less prestigious pictures. Her biggest success in the 1940s was probably in The Killers (1946) for Universal playing opposite Burt Lancaster. In 1949 she had appeared in East Side, West Side for MGM, supporting Barbara Stanwyck and James Mason. The film was deemed a dud by critics but MGM persisted and put Gardner in two other pictures for release in 1951 alongside Pandora. There is a suggestion that the studio delayed the release of Pandora in the US until its second remake of the musical drama Showboat, in Technicolor, had attracted audiences and given Gardner a higher public profile. It does seem the case that Ava Gardner’s career properly took off in the early 1950s, especially with directors who recognised her talent and brought it to the screen – in 1953 she made Mogambo for John Ford and in 1956 Bhowani Junction for George Cukor. Both films were made on location as US-UK productions like Pandora. Gardner seemed to enjoy her time away from the US and in 1968 she moved to London.
James Mason had travelled to America in 1947 and had first appeared in a Broadway play which was not successful. From 1944-47 Mason had been the most popular male star in British cinema at a time when audiences had for once preferred British to American films. Going to Hollywood seemed a logical step and it was taken by three of Mason’s contemporaries, Deborah Kerr, Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons. Kerr and Granger were contracted at MGM but Mason had plans to produce himself and hoped to make deals with different studios. He admitted later that he didn’t know the American system and made mistakes. He had to accept roles in films that the studios didn’t support or didn’t understand. From 1949 he made films at Columbia and Universal as well as three for MGM before Pandora. He felt that none of the five worked as he hoped they would, although he enjoyed working with Max Ophüls on Caught and Reckless Moment. When he read the script for Pandora he thought it looked a good proposition but when he got to Spain, he found that the agreeable Albert Lewin he had met in California turned from “Dr. Jekyll to Mr Hyde” and alienated most of the cast. He thought that despite the excellent work of the crew, the film was a mess because Lewin, though a good writer, was a poor director. Mason discovered that the critics, including the one he trusted most (C. A. Lejeune of the Observer) agreed with his view. However, he also noted that many audiences around Europe really liked the film. The response in America several months later was positive enough to help boost both Mason and Gardner and to to see them offered better roles. Mason had already got the role he wanted at Twentieth Century Fox, playing Rommel in The Desert Fox, which opened in the US at roughly the same time as Pandora. He became recognised as the actor he always wanted to be and in 1956 he got his wish to produce a film for himself, Nick Ray’s Bigger Than Life. Far ahead of its time, the film flopped. It’s now recognised and celebrated and remains one of my favourites.
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is not a great film, despite Martin Scorsese’s praise but it is definitely worth watching. I’m not sure I buy the romance and this kind of fantasy is not really my thing unless it is in the hands of The Archers or Jean Cocteau in France. On the other hand, Pandora looks amazing and Ava Gardner has never been more ravishing – I can’t think of another actress who could wear the extraordinary costumes designed for role with such grace and panache. I’m reminded that in Mogambo, Gardner was up against Grace Kelly and won the contest. Mason had just turned forty when he made the film and his youthful danger was just starting to acquire some gravitas. They make an attractive couple. The Park Circus DVD was released before a full 4K restoration which has been distributed by Cohen media since 2019. Here is a the French poster for that restoration and the trailer.
Great review. There’s a 1080p version of this on YouTube, might give it another spin! Saw it on Bbc2 in the early 80’s, but was a bit gauche to get it! Probably still am…