Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951): Gazing at Ava Gardner at her Most Beautiful and Seductive

Directed by Albert Lewin in 1951 in the U.K., Pandora and the Dutchman was based on the famous legend of The Flying Dutchman.

The film stars Ava Gardner, James Mason, and Nigel Patrick, and MGM delayed its release until Gardner’s star-making role in 1951’s Show Boat was out in theaters,  The strategy worked, and this film solidified Gardner’s status as a major star, sex symbol, and reliable actress of the 1950s.

In 1930, fishermen in the Catalan port of Esperanza find in their nets the bodies of a man and a woman; only their hands are seen.

The resident archaeologist, Geoffrey Fielding (Harold Warrender), then retells the story of these two people to us, the audience that’s watching the film.

Esperanza’s group of English expatriates revolves around Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner), an American nightclub singer and seductive femme fatale who attracts every man she meets but is unable to love–and show emotion for–anyone.

Gardner is introduced at a club, wearing a deep-cleavage, bareback long silver dress, sitting by the piano playing and singing.

Pandora tests her admirers by demanding that they give up something they value, citing Fielding that the “measure of love is how much you are willing to sacrifice for it.”

One of her admirers (Marius Goring) commits suicide in front of Pandora and her friends by drinking wine laced with poison, but Pandora shows indifference.

Pandora agrees to marry the land holder Stephen Cameron (Nigel Patrick), after he sends his racing car into the sea at her request. That night, the Dutch captain Hendrick van der Zee (James Mason) arrives in Esperanza. Pandora swims out to his yacht and finds him painting a picture of her posed as her namesake, Pandora, the goddess whose actions brought an end to earthly paradise in Greek mythology. Van der Zee, smitten with Pandora, moves into the same hotel as the other expatriates.

Geoffrey and Hendrick collaborate in an effort to seek background information on the local finds. A notebook written in Old Dutch reveals that van der Zee is the cursed Flying Dutchman, a 16th-century ship captain who murdered his unfaithful wife. At his murder trial, he is sentenced to death.

The evening before his execution, a mysterious force opened the Dutchman’s prison and he escapes to his ship.  Then a dream reveals to him that his wife was actually innocent. The next morning, he discovers his ship is haunted by ghosts. For his lack of faith in man and God, he is condemned to sail the seas for eternity unless he can find a woman who loves him enough to die for him.

Every seven years the Dutchman can go on shore for six months to find a woman willing to sacrifice her life.  Pandora declares her love for van der Zee, but the infatuated Dutchman, unwilling to let her die, tries to provoke her into hating him. Pandora is also loved by Juan Montalvo, a jealous bullfighter (Mario Cabre), who murders van der Zee in a rage.

But as soon as Montalvo leaves, van der Zee comes back to life. He attends the bullfight the next day, and when Montalvo sees him in the audience, he is so horrified that he is carelessly and  fatally gored by the bull. Before dying, Montalvo tells Pandora about his attack on van der Zee, but she remains skeptical.

On her wedding eve to Stephen, Pandora approaches Geoffrey, pleading to understand who Hendrick really is. And when the Flying Dutchman sets his sails, Geoffrey hands her a copy of the notebook. Upon learning the truth, Pandora swims to the Dutchman’s yacht. He shows her a portrait of his murdered wife and she realizes why the painting of Pandora looked like her; van der Zee was painting from memory.

Hendrik explains they were once man and wife and through her he has been given the chance to lift his punishment, but he has rejected it because it would mean the loss of her life. He accepts her love and they are reunited for eternity. After a brutal sea storm the bodies of Pandora and the Dutchman are found. With their destinies fulfilled, the curse has been lifted.

It is noteworthy that in Richard Wagner’s famous opera, which is still produced by many houses, the Flying Dutchman refers to the boat, not to the story’s male character.

A baroque synthesis of classical myth and German legend, this flawed, overly verbose picture offers two main pleasures: visual through the beauty of Ava Gardner, who is in almost every scene, and aural, the sound of James Mason’s velvety voice.

Most of the movie was shot by the brilliant cinematographer Jack Cardiff (who later became a director himself) on location in Tossa de Mar, Catalonia, Spain.

Later on, a statue of Ava Gardner, who had lived in Spain for over a decade, was built on the hill overlooking the town’s beach.