Albert Lewin’s romantic fable opens in Esperanza on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. If the director is a generally unknown name, then Jack Cardiff might just as easily draw your attention with his distinct, intoxicating color tones. It’s true the picture opens with a wonderful shot perched from a bell tower. It’s sounding the alarm and, true to form, all the local populations are flooding the beach.
As we get closer, we see what has elicited such a rapid response: a boat beached on the shoreline. How it got there is really the whole reason for telling this story. Geoffrey Fielding (Harold Warrender) is a distinguished and learned fellow of linguistics and ancient antiquities who was an observer of these curious events.
However, he also proves an apt entry point into the story, which is fundamentally obscured from the outset. The erudite chap helps us out by recounting the details, how they happened from the beginning. Breaking with Hollywood convention, for some puzzling reason, he speaks directly to us, and it’s just as well. The movie is replete with these kinds of mystifying pieces of logic.
Whether it’s something in the water, the air, or just the script, characters float through scenes in this mesmerizing near-dream state. Nearly every male, in particular, orbits around a woman named Pandora (Ava Gardner) as if she is the Sun at the center of their solar system. Drunkards, race car drivers, artists, matadors — it’s all the same — and the gorgeous nightclub singer from the Carolinas seems to welcome their advances.
While Pandora Reynolds is not Ava Gardner exactly, it’s difficult not to see how the part plays on her own reputation — one of beauty, high times, and carousing with a penchant for drama. She famously moved to Spain to get away from Hollywood (and probably Frank Sinatra) only to make a life for herself abroad.
Again, this is not an exact representation of Gardner, but Pandora tosses men around like playthings. She gets emotional highs off other people’s passionate pronouncements of romance. She’s also an impertinent even impetus woman who measures love in the most reckless ways with a hedonistic comprehension.
One man (Marius Goring) turns into a blithering alcoholic falling over himself with jealousy. Another man (Nigel Patrick), madly in love with her, gladly pushes his most prized possession — a racing car — off a cliff into the oceans below as a show of devotion. She agrees to an impromptu marriage in its wake. He’s proved his undying commitment at her behest.
However, there is someone else, a Dutchman named Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason), who is quite different. She is drawn to him; his ship is anchored off the coast and she swims toward it — the solitary light it casts in the night sky. For the first time, someone is unphased by her allure and the directness she goes about her affairs.
In fact, he somehow knows more about her than she knows about herself. He’s an artist painting her or at least painting Pandora and her box as she is a present embodiment of a creature who was incarnated eons before. In this way, Pandora and The Flying Dutchman evokes a broader scale by turning a belle, Pandora Reynolds, into a transcendent archetype. It trades worldly coincidence for the heights of mythology.
When Mason and Gardner witness each other for the first time — both garnering a striking closeup — we know we’re in for something ignited with the flames of passion. Because they’re both the picture of attractive Hollywood A-Listers. Mason, of course, started out in the U.K. and this is a British production but he would hop the pond soon enough.
From thenceforward, the movie is ruled by this uncanny lucidity bridging the years between encounters across time and space. Mason brings with him an aura of his own, and there’s a newfound mystical ecstasy around the frames.
Still, there is some semblance of reality. Pandora Reynolds is to be married. Another past suitor, a cocksure Matador (Mario Cabre), is quick and bold in his new professions of love. Whereas the Dutchman lets her go, the bullfighter tries as brashly as he can to pull her away from the man she is betrothed to. He probably believes rightfully so that she doesn’t truly love her fiancee. It’s more of a token agreement based on his devotion.
Because while the racecar driver is a miserable sot and probably oblivious to the kind of wavelength all the other characters seem to speak and react on, the Matador knows who his true rival is. It goes unspoken and yet he goes to the Dutchman to have it out.
In one of the most curious scenes splitting with any shred of reality and narrative logic, there is a confrontation, a murder, a nightmare — whatever you want to call it. And yet inexplicably the story wakes up the next morning as if nothing has happened.
James Mason and Ava Gardner and Geoffrey take their places at the bullfight only to watch the famed Matador get gored to death. The fates of love are not working in his favor.
If you’ll remember, Pandora and The Flying Dutchman opened with the beaching of a ship with bodies aboard. In the end, this hardly seems to matter. It is material only on this celestial sphere we call earth where living and breathing are of the utmost importance. This is a story not so much concerned with such mundane themes. Instead, it tackles love on this cosmic scale spanning the centuries even the millennia and brings people together like ships passing through the nights of time.
They conquer death — and we are led to believe even eternity — for the sake of their all-encompassing love. The grandiose metaphors are always arresting and make one’s heart swell with an appreciation for the throes of romance. Gardner and Mason aren’t a bad couple to hang our hopes on in this regard even if the narrative shards feel thin or at the very least discombobulating.
It’s more an exercise in Delphic style than it is riveting storytelling and yet there is something moderately powerful in working in ambiguous shades of dream-like reality, where players walk around in this heightened state bursting with almost obscene amounts of color. Romance is considered in these glorious arenas of speed racing and bullfighting and then stretches across great fathoms of time into the annals of history and myth itself. There’s nothing subtle about it, and visually it’s too gorgeous not to appreciate on that level alone.