Sunday 28 December 2014

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

Pandora og Den Flyvende Hollænder
Merry Christmas to all of you.

In between eating solid Christmas fare and playing with my son and all his new toys I have found time to watch “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman”. This movie was replaced in the Danish edition of the List by the Swedish movie “Hon Dansade en Sommar” and so apparently the editors ranked this movies the least important of the original 1951 picks. I cannot say that I entirely disagree.

Let me start with what is good about this movie: It features Ava Gardner and James Mason.

There is no way around it, Ava Gardner has to be one of the prettiest and most alluring actresses of the era and in this movie everything was done to emphasize all her becoming attributes. That is an understatement really. She is ultra hot. The colors emphasize her luscious lips and makes her flawless face… well flawless. Having her enter the yacht (of the Flying Dutchman) wrapped only in sail canvas is a promise of sex as the ever was one and her manners and acting all the way through the movie backs up this impression. Her role is to drive men crazy and while I often have a problem with female leads supposed to have, but ultimately lacking, this ability, this is one case where it works. The only problem here is that sometimes you can really see how much the director/ cinematographer/ costume department worked to emphasize this point. She always seems to wear dresses that serves her delectable bosom to the men around her and no matter what she does she appears to have just left the cosmetics shop prior to shooting. Yet, I forgive them when the result is so gorgeous.

The selling feature of James Mason is his voice. It is one of those British voices I can listen to for hours and in this movie he gets amply opportunity to exercise it. Frankly, he could read the phone directory and I would be mesmerized. Couple that with his brooding gaze and you have a very compelling man with a very dark secret.

Sounds great, does it not?

Unfortunately this is where greatness ends for this movie. I disliked practically everything else about it.

Part of it of course is the poor state of the print itself. I found it as a Spanish import in bad need of restoration. This is how movies look and sound before the magic restoration process. Grainy picture, faded colors, rusty sound and almost random cutting clearly indicating that somebody has already cut away the worst parts, but not cared overly much exactly where they placed the cut. It is a shame really when you have a master like Jack Cardiff on board that the colors come out so poorly.

But technical state besides those are not the real problems this movie has to struggle with.

The premise of the story is ludicrous to begin with. That a 300 year old ghost of a sea captain shows up on the beachfront as a dashing hunk, his salt spattered merchantman turned into a luxury yacht, on a quest to find his lost love. Match this with the larger than life man-eating femme fatale who in-between munching up men gets ensnared with the captain. Their love, doomed, fatal, but oh, so romantic is given from the start. Frankly this stuff belong on the pink pages of women’s magazines as cheap novellas and not in a big movie production. It is just revulsive.

Add to this that practically all dialogue is framed as declarations or recitations of poetry and we are far beyond fairy tales and long into pretentious bull shit. It is a failed attempt at being high-brow and instead aims at the lowest instincts. Sort of the plebeian impression of what high art must look like. Sticky, nauseating and, yes, stupid.

The central statement is that love can be measured by what you will give up for it. So, Steven (Nigel Patrick) offers his beloved racing car for Pandora (Ava Gardner), Demerest (Marius Goring) kills himself and Montalvo (Mario Cabre) commits murder for Pandora. Pandora herself must give up her life to be with the Captain while the Captain must give up… no wait, he is not giving up anything. He needs Pandora in order to break the curse on him. If anything he much snatch the blossom, but in the shape of Ava Gardner I think that is a price that most men could live with.

My claim here is that this central statement is another round of romantic bull shit. Hey, everybody wants to be loved and it is kind of flattering that somebody prefers you to something otherwise dear to them, but really, if you loved somebody and not just yourself, would you really want to force that choice? To make them select, to make them loose something precious? Is that not the ultimate cruelty? If you love somebody, you love the package and you love that your sweetheart cares for other things as well, otherwise you are just a succubus, eating you partner dry.

I may be overreacting a bit here. Romanticism loves this premise and audiences at all times have cried themselves senseless over this very issue, but to me it is most infuriating and when a movie is as devoted to this idea as this one is it just makes me mad.  

The funny thing is that I actually like that the movie dares to play with the fantastic. Today every second movie has a fantastic element, but in the early fifties this was a rarity. Of course Hollywood in particular excelled in putting up unrealistic scenarios, but they were generally confined to the real world. Fantastic elements have the ability, like science fiction, to extrapolate ideas so we can consider them in a different and unusual light and in addition, provides some much needed escapism. In that light it just saddens me when the topic under consideration is as silly as this one. It belongs in women’s weeklies in the hairdresser parlour.

Ultimately I ended up disconnecting from the story and resigned myself to watch and listen to Gardner and Mason. They almost make it worth watching this movie and I wonder what it would be like watching these two in a better movie.


  1. As it happens, I was mildly fond of this movie, almost despite Ava Gardner, who I tend to not care for. James Mason is a big reason. I agree that it doesn't belong on The List, though. There's not enough here, and while the fantasy elements are interesting, there are better romances out there.

    1. Yes, it is curious how beauty (and presence) is in the eye of the beholder. So far I have had no reason to be disappointed with Gardner, but that is just my personal opinion. Mason is a rising star in my mind and I have come to look forward to movies featuring him and his voice. Unfortunately at the end of the day the story itself is what matters to me and that just did not cut it in this case.

  2. I also liked this one to a certain extent. The legend of the Flying Dutchman is an old one, but not one I have seen very much (if at all) in a movie. This meant that aspect of it was fresh for me.

    I agree that Gardner is very pretty and I felt that the best Kate Beckinsale has looked onscreen was when she was playing Gardner in the film The Aviator.

    1. Well, it seems I am in minority here.
      I do not think I am really objecting to the Flying Dutchman tale per se, but something with the presentation here makes it get stuck in my throat.
      Gardner (as a character) was in The Aviator? I think I must see that movie again.

    2. She was one of Hughes' girlfriends. She didn't have as much screen time as Cate Blanchett playing Katherine Hepburn. Beckinsale put on some weight to realistically look like how actresses did back then and I felt she looked great because her bones weren't sticking out everywhere and she actually had some curves.

    3. I really do not remember much else from this movie than the despondency of DiCaprio's character. Definitely a rewatch