Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

Directed by Albert Lewin

(This review is from 2001.)

I wanted so much for this to be a good movie. Unfortunately, it’s not. But in an abstract way, it’s kind of interesting to watch in order to understand why it fails. The primary problem with Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is it’s desperate to be important. It’s pretentious.

Rather than simply telling its story, it comments on it and usually with a dreary self-importance that makes your eyes roll.

What is really frustrating is the film starts from such strong, rich story elements. In fact, it may be overburdened with them. The legend of the Flying Dutchman alone is great raw material for a movie. Here, however, the filmmaker (Albert Lewin — writer and director of the film) throws the myth of Pandora into the story as well. Again, Pandora alone is strong material.

So there is a wealth of riches here as far as the basic story elements go and, given the film’s need to be important, they are a bit overwhelming. (Lewin, not satisfied with this, also throws in verses from the Rubait of Omar Khayam!)

But it’s the film’s need to comment, to make sure we understand what is supposed to be important, that ruins it. This compulsion drives the screenplay into a narrative style that is more appropriate to older novels than to cinema. It tells rather than shows (and often shows then tells to make sure we get it).

It uses a voice over narrative throughout. This works in films sometimes, though not often and when it does generally not particularly well. (For an exception, see The Royal Tenenbaums.)

Compounding this problem is the narrator himself, a tedious scholarly type you feel the need to slap and say, “For heaven’s sake, shuttup!”

The film also uses very unimaginative, plodding direction in terms of storyline. It begins here and by logical steps goes there. Even a flashback sequence is presented in a very pedestrian, trudging way. It’s very much a paint-by-numbers directing style.

Finally, we get the performances which are so melodramatic and/or stilted you again feel the need to slap people around.

But there is a saving grace – two actually. Ava Gardner and James Mason. Remarkably, both seem to transcend the mess they’ve found themselves in and give interesting, engaging performances.

Mason’s restraint works marvelously well in the film (and in contrast to the Drama 101 performances surrounding him), and Ava Gardner’s naturalness stands out like shining star amid the dross of soap opera caricatures around her.

Besides Gardner and Mason, the best thing about this movie is the idea of it; the version it gives us of the Flying Dutchman who is forced to sail the seas forever unless he can find a woman who will love him to the extent she would give up her life for him thus allowing him to finally die.

Yes, it’s a wildly romantic notion but, treated well (with restraint), it could be translated into a compelling film.

Sadly, this hasn’t happened here and what we’re left with is two marvelous actors whose talents have been wasted in a self-indulgent mess.

Note on the DVD:

The Kino Video DVD has both good and bad aspects to it. For a colour film of this age (1951) it’s not bad but certainly not great. But we do get to appreciate some of Jack Cardiff’s wonderful cinematography. The transfer is, “Newly mastered from a 35mm technicolor print and featuring the original theatrical trailer.”

There are, however, some jumps in the film. The sound is also problematic in that we hear the clunks of the reel changes. In other words, there has been no restoration work done on the film.

(The above refers to the Kino DVD of 2000. It was re-released in 2010 in a “Deluxe Edition” both as standard DVD and Blu-Ray. I’ve not seen these editions so I can’t speak to their quality. I would hope it has been improved.)

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