At the height of her career, Ava Gardner was called the “most beautiful animal.” Indeed, she was mesmerizing, and she enjoyed a successful career in Hollywood that spanned decades. In 1951, she starred in the British Technicolor drama film called Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, which MGM distributed in the United States. The film also starred James Mason, best known for his role as Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is a cinematically beautiful movie, and the story was rather unique at the time of its release. Renowned cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, took advantage of Technicolor’s recent advancement in full color movies to help create an enchanting cinematic experience. Upon its release, the movie proved to be a commercial success and it solidified Ava Gardner’s star power in Hollywood.
The film takes place during the 1930s in the small Spanish port town of Esperanza, where many expatriates live. Ava performs the role of the titular character of Pandora, a beautiful woman who captivates the heart of nearly every man she meets. Though she doesn’t go out of her way to be mean, Pandora is incapable of giving her heart to any of these men. Her rejection causes great pain, and some of her lovers are actually driven mad. One of her admirers, a renowned race car driver named Stephen (Nigel Patrick) proposes to Pandora. She half-heartedly agrees, but only if he is willing to push his race car off the cliff. While Stephen is pained to destroy his prized possession, a car that he has poured his blood, sweat, and tears, he complies because he truly is in love with Pandora.
On the same night as her engagement to Stephen, Pandora spots a strange boat in the harbor. She swims out to the boat to investigate and that’s when she meets Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason). Hendrik is painting a portrait in her likeness, but in this painting, Pandora is the Greek manifestation who dared to open the box that released evil into the world. While Hendrik is clearly enraptured with Pandora, she is both intrigued and angered by him. She doesn’t exactly know why Hendrik has this effect on her.
Pandora’s friend, Geoffrey also suspects that there’s something unusual about this new stranger. Hendrik shares a surreal story to Geoffrey, which sounds more like a tale from a fantasy novel. He explains that a long time ago a ship captain was married to a beautiful woman, who he then murdered because he believed that she had cheated on him. The night before his execution, the door to his prison cell opened as though a spell were cast, and he escaped to his ship called The Flying Dutchman. The captain instructed his crew to immediately set sail. The next morning, however, when the captain awoke, he finds his ship empty. His crew is gone. He quickly realizes that he’s been cursed to wander the seas and endure solitude for perpetuity. Every seven years, he’s allowed to dock to spend six months in society so that he may one day find his beloved. The only way the captain can break his curse is if he finds his beloved and she sacrifices her life for him.
While Pandora reluctantly prepares for her wedding, she keeps feeling that her connection with Hendrik is significant, but she can’t fully understand why. On the eve of her wedding, Pandora has to make a choice. Does she want the safety and security from a man she doesn’t love, or does she choose to go with the heart and embrace the uncertainty she will face?
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is a sultry and unforgettable film that is as well-liked today as it was when it was released in the 1950s. Even though Ava Gardner never won an Academy Award, she definitely made her mark in Hollywood. She made great films, broke men’s hearts, but, as she once said, she “never made jam.” Ava passed away in 1990, but her feisty spirit lives on in her many film roles.