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2 hrs. 2 mins - Drama, Fantasy, Romance - 1951 - 7.0 stars
Director: Albert Lewin
Cast: James Mason - Hendrik Van der Zee
Ava Gardner - Pandora Reynolds
Nigel Patrick - Stephen Cameron
Sheila Sim - Janet
Harold Warrender - Geoffrey Fielding
Mario Cambre´ - Juan Montalvo
Marius Goring - Reggie Demarest
Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie.
Synopsis Part I
In the opening scene some fishermen, along the coast of Spain, haul in wreckage and among that wreckage we see a dead woman (though we just see her hands) and a book, The Rubyat of Omar Khayyam. This is the story of how that woman got there in the first place.
The woman is Pandora Reynolds (played by Ava Gardner) an American expatriate living in the Spanish coastal town of Esperanza. She lives amongst a community of other English-speaking expats, one of whom is Geoffrey Fielding (played by Harold Warrender), a professor of antiquities who has found a trove of statues, presumably from the Roman period and some even earlier, lying beneath the waters off the coast here. He is summoned to identify the body that the fishermen have found and the book which belongs to him. As he sees the body Geoffrey looks into the camera and says, “The measure of love is what one is willing to give up for it”. From this point onward the movie is a retrospective of what had happened and the events leading up to this time; its beginning is really its ending. And Geoffrey narrates it.
He tells the story of an old manuscript he had come across with the tale of The Flying Dutchman, but he has had difficulty with the translation because, while he was familiar with Dutch, this manuscript was written in a seventeenth century form of the language and he has shared with his friends his frustration of not being able to translate the manuscript. One evening unable to focus on the text he went down to the local bar and joined his other expat friends there. In this scene we are introduced to many of the characters including one of the lead characters, Pandora. A young man, Reggie, who is in love with Pandora, asks her to sing a special song for him, a love song. As he stands by the piano hearing her play and sing he slips something into his own drink. It is poison. He is impressed with the feeling with which she sings the number and says, “You sang that as though you meant it.” She admitted that she did mean it. He goes on to say, “But not for me.” She answers, “No Reggie, not for you.” Eventually and dejectedly he asks, “For whom then?” She answers, “I don’t know.” He responds, “You haven’t met him yet.” He then asks, “Will you marry me?” To which she responds, “No, Reggie.” He downs his drink and within a moment collapses and dies. The friends are aghast; Pandora quietly walks out of the bar. A few days later she shows no sign of remorse or guilt or sorrow. To her it’s just another day.
Pandora Sings for Reggie
Synopsis Part II
Meanwhile, she has a boyfriend, Stephen, who builds and races motor cars. He has recently finished a two year long project building a car in which he hopes to break a world speed record. At her request he takes her out for a late night spin. After a racing sort of ascent up the winding road they stopped at a cliff top spot overlooking the sea. Pandora sees a yacht out in the harbor and she wonders out loud who it is, perhaps, she says jokingly, that it is the Flying Dutchman of Geoffrey’s legend. Stephen asks her to marry him. She turns to Stephen and asks if he loves her to which he responds, “Yes.” She asks him what he would give up for her. He declares that nothing is more important to him than she is. Then she asks him to push his car off the cliff to prove his devotion to her.
He does so and the sacrifice does impress her so she accepts his proposal and they set a date. Soon they are given a lift back down the cliff to the town. She remains curious, however, about the yacht she sees and is oddly drawn to it. So much so that though it is the middle of the night she swims out to it to meet whoever is on board.
She finds the yacht to be deserted of crew and only occupied by a lone man who is painting a portrait. He introduces himself as Hendrik Van der Zee (played by James Mason). He isn’t startled at all to have this late night visitor, this stranger, board his ship. He is calm at her appearance as if he’d been expecting her. Pandora strikes up a conversation of introduction and general chit chat. When she comes around to see the portrait he is painting she’s shocked to see that it is a portrait of her holding a box! Hendrik Van der Zee is painting a portrait of Pandora and her box from Greek mythology, but it is the face of Pandora Reynolds that he has painted. Pandora is perplexed at this point and cannot understand how this could be; she’s never met him before. Her confusion turns to anger and she mars the portrait so that it no longer looks like her at all. Hendrik doesn’t appear offended in the least. He, rather, assumes her marring to be an improvement and changes the portrait face into an abstraction. His lack of an angry response fascinates Pandora and intrigues us. She remains, however, terribly curious as to how this stranger could be painting her face on a portrait that bears her name.
Pandora Sees Her Portrait
Synopsis Part III
Stephen and Geoffrey sail out to the yacht to retrieve Pandora and they meet Hendrik. Pandora half-jokingly then asks Hendrik if he is the Flying Dutchman, after all his name is Dutch and this whole encounter seems mysterious and the legend, what little she knows about it, has captured her imagination. He does not answer. Geoffrey and Hendrik strike up a friendship and eventually Geoffrey has Hendrik translate the Flying Dutchman manuscript he found. In this reading we are shown the whole story, the whole legend. We are shown how back in the seventeenth century a man known as the Flying Dutchman, a ship captain, had murdered his wife on suspicion of adultery and how he, in court after receiving a death sentence, challenged God to make sport of his soul. We learn of how he was that night miraculously set free from his prison cell and placed back aboard his own ship. We learn how he was alone on that ship; and how he was doomed to wander the world aimlessly only appearing in a port once every seven years and for six months at a time until he could meet a woman who would love him enough to die for him, and we learn that he would then be free to die too, because his curse was to not die, but to live in utter loneliness save for the once in seven year shore leave. Then we learn that Hendrik is that cursed Flying Dutchman! We also learn that the wife he killed back in the 1600s looked exactly like Pandora! Geoffrey also realizes Hendrik’s true identity when as he is reading the manuscript the sun goes down but he doesn’t turn on the lamp. He does not need to see it to read it. It is his story and he is its author. Geoffrey is alarmed because he sees the chemistry between Pandora and Hendrik and in fact Hendrik says to him, ominously, “It is not only the manuscript that’s come back to me.”
Stephen was allowed by Pandora to retrieve his car and restore it again. He then used the car to race along the beach to set a new world speed record. He did this despite the car having sustained damage therefore doing it at great personal risk. It seems as if he was motivated in part by a need to impress Pandora. Stephen survived the speed demonstration but at a celebratory dinner Geoffrey’s niece, Jen, who had a crush on Stephen, yelled at Pandora and slapped her for leading him on to the point of risking his life for her.
A romance develops between Hendrik and Pandora. Hendrik asks her what she would give up for him; she says that she’d give her life for him without hesitation. She has a sense that she has known him much longer then she really has. He, in turn, tells her that he’d give up his salvation for her!
A former suitor of Pandora, Juan Montalvo, comes to town. He is a famous matador and he is a jealous and violent man and he wants to marry Pandora. He does not like the fact that Pandora is engaged to Stephen, but he is even more threatened by Hendrik. So on the night before a highly publicized bullfight in which he is the featured participant Montalvo goes to Hendrik’s home and kills him with a knife. As he lays there dying Hendrik asks Montalvo for the “coup de grace”, the stroke of grace to make the death sure. Montalvo strikes him again then quickly leaves. But Hendrik is the Flying Dutchman and he is not able to die so a short while later his wound heals and he is made completely well. Pandora visits Hendrik and sees that there has been a struggle but Hendrik denies that anything really has happened to him except that his dog has been killed.
During the bullfight the next day as Montalvo looks up he sees Hendrik arrive in the stands and is stunned and distracted. While he is distracted the bull gores him; it is a fatal wound. Before he dies Pandora visits him in the hospital and he confesses to her that he killed Hendrik the night bore, but then saw his ghost in the stands.
Pandora then goes to Hendrik and stares at him. She knows that there is something very unusual about him but she doesn’t quite know what. Later she asks Geoffrey what he knows about Hendrik but Geoffrey is elusive in his answer. However, the next day, after Geoffrey mistakenly thought that Hendrik’s ship was due to depart and it safe to do so, he gave Pandora his now completed translation of the Flying Dutchman manuscript and she reads it.
But Geoffrey had miscalculated thinking that Hendrik had been due to leave, that the six month stay was over and he was divinely appointed to depart. Hendrik’s yacht was becalmed however, and Geoffrey could not do anything to stop Pandora, after she read the manuscript, from going out to Hendrik’s yacht for the purpose of dying with him. It was her body, then that Geoffrey identified and by her hands his book.
Hendrik Translates the Legend
Analysis Part I: The Men in Pandora's Life
The movie has a lot to say and is rich in quotes of wisdom. The characters have such divergent personalities as to make them stand out in any story. Though James Mason is first billed, the center of the audience’s attention is initially drawn to Ava Gardiner because she has a dominate presence in the story. Yet despite this presence the movie must be about Mason’s Hendrik Van der Zee whose character is the more mysterious.
Pandora is a femme fatale whose presence mesmerizes men, always to their own detriment and intimidates women to their own frustration. She is so different from other stereotypical Midwestern girls. She is Pandora Reynolds of Indianapolis, yes, but she is a true cosmopolitan shunning the prairies of Indiana for the cliffs of the Spanish coast and here she plays men as her personal marionettes.
The first of these marionettes is Reggie; poor love struck Reggie who handles his rejection with suicide. It does not strongly register with Pandora. She treats the incident with indifference. When she is playing a love song on the piano for Reggie he noted that she sang it as if she meant it. She answered in the affirmative. Reggie knew she did not mean it for him. He asked if she meant it for Stephen, her boyfriend, then. She denied that she meant it for Stephen. At that point we know that she is only stringing Stephen along as if she is resigned to him because there’s no one better around.
Next let’s look at Stephen. She goes so far as to get engaged to him. Early in the movie Geoffrey makes a statement which intrigues Pandora, “The measure of love is what one is willing to give up for it.” This becomes the feature theme of the entire movie, indeed perhaps the moral of the whole story itself. Pandora tests Stephen’s love and devotion to her. He has been working on a racing car. It has been a labor of love that he has spent two years perfecting. When he finally has it ready Pandora asks him to take her up to the top of the cliff to test it and to show her how it handles. It handles nicely; he has done a remarkable job in building it. At the top of the cliff he asks her to marry him. She responds by asking him how long he has been working on the car to which he answers, “two years”. She asks if he loves anything in this world more than that car. He answers, “One thing”. She then asks him to push it off the cliff for her which he does. The car has the name ‘Pandora’ painted on it, incidentally. After this deed Pandora consents to marry him. He wants to marry the next day; she wants to wait. She asks him what day it is, he says, “March 9th”. She says that it’s the 9th day of the 3rd month and that she will marry him on the 3rd day of the 9th month. This puts it at about 6 months away. And unknowingly this coincides with the mandatory departure date of the Flying Dutchman. In this scene we have witnessed Stephen giving up his most cherished possession, his car, for the prize of Pandora and she responds by accepting his proposal, not right away, but within 6 months. She has agreed to marry Stephen after he sacrifices his most prized possession, but her heart longs for someone else who she hasn’t met yet. And it is interesting that it is on that late night drive to the top of the cliff that she first notices the Dutchman’s yacht.
The next suitor to examine is Juan Montalvo (he goes by his last name in the movie). Montalvo is more than assertive. He informs her that she will marry him. She does not. He had come back to his hometown amidst great fanfare as a national hero. He appears in the movie with a history with Pandora, a former fling of his. She had traveled the bull fight circuit with him and he wants to resume where they had left off. He is a matador, a very proud man with a controlling temper. He is jealous of the men in Pandora’s life and his jealousy gets out of control when he suspects Hendrik of being the real love of Pandora, not Stephen. He kills Hendrik by throwing a knife into his back. It is his own undoing because the Flying Dutchman can’t die. He wants to die, but he can’t. He even tells the matador to give him the “coup de grace” the stroke of mercy in other words he wanted him to finish the job make sure it’s done. Montalvo obliges then leaves. But Hendrik is not dead; his wounds heal and he is, mercilessly, restored to perfect health. His presence in the stands at the bull fight so disturbs and distracts Montalvo that he loses his concentration and is gored by the bull, a fatal mistake. Montalvo dies and he dies thinking that he had seen a ghost.
Finally there is Hendrik Van der Zee. He alone fascinates Pandora. While she has captivated the other three men, he has captivated her! Hendrik Van der Zee is the most interesting character in the movie. His story is a legend and she does not realize this at first. He is a man unlike any she had ever met. He is almost magical. As she has drawn men into her life, so he has drawn her into his, and more powerfully.
It must be difficult for us to understand Hendrik’s point of view. It is our natural inclination to want to live, but Hendrik is under a curse and that curse causes him to live and for that life to be a lonely one. For 300 years he has lived alone on a ghost ship and he finds that to be a fate worse than death.
Hendrik's Wife 300 Years Ago
Analysis Part II: The Curse
In the movie the legend of the Flying Dutchman is a story of a man under a curse doomed to roam the seas as a ship captain on a ship empty of all but himself. He appears at port for six months once every seven years. He can never die until he can find a woman who will love him enough to die for him. He has been cursed and sailing for 300 years!
Geoffrey has the manuscript of that legend (written in Dutch) and Hendrik helps him to translate it since he is Dutch. What neither Geoffrey nor Pandora realize at first is that Hendrik is the author of it. And even more fantastic he is the subject of it for he is the Flying Dutchman – a man doomed to live!
His back story, the way he came under this curse, comes from his declaration shouted out in his trial for the murder of his wife – who by the way looked exactly like Pandora. In the trial after he was sentenced to death he shouted out, “Let the divinity I reject make what sport he will of my immortal soul.” The judge is so unnerved by this declaration, being the God-fearing man that he is, that he responds, with, “I tremble for the soul that will depart your body tomorrow. For the God that you have blasphemed will judge your words as I have judged your deed. You have taken a life and yours is forfeit, tomorrow you will die. But the part of you that does not die, the immortal part what of that? He who knows our thoughts will He not hear our words? I pity you not my doom, but God’s!” Powerful words!
He was ‘made sport of’ and though he longs to die he cannot. He states it, “After seven years and again after seven years I found harbor to see again with longing the lives of those who grow old and die, of those who suffer and die, of those who die.”
Hendrik Would Give Up His Salvation for Her
Analysis Part III: The Conclusion
The theme of the story, ‘the measure of love is what one is willing to give up for it is played out when Hendrik asks if Pandora is willing to die for him. She answers that she would die for him without the least hesitation. She says this before she knows anything about the legend of the Flying Dutchman or that Hendrik is he. Hendrik must be both elated and horrified by this confession. When she asks him what he would give up for her his answer seems to outdo hers. He says that he would give up his salvation! But he isn’t just trying to beat her at some game seeing who can sacrifice the most. Unbeknownst to her he really means it and she is perplexed. Recall that in order for him to die, and presumably go to Heaven he needs a woman who will love him and die for him. He is in a quandary, because of his love for her he doesn’t want her to die. He really is sacrificing his salvation for her in order to let her live. So, instantly he rejects her telling her that her words of love spoken to him were especially inappropriate due to her upcoming wedding to Stephen. He breaks her heart so that she may live and at the greatest of all sacrifices to himself. Nevertheless later in the movie, after she reads the legend, she goes to his yacht of her own free will and with full knowledge of her fate, death, and his salvation. On that yacht she gives herself up and is rapturously happy. She asks how long they’ve got before they die. At this point the movie plays a trick on Pandora and on us, the audience. In response to her question Hendrik asks a question, “How long do you think we’ve been here?” She answers, “I don’t know, not very long; it seems timeless.” At that point the sand in the hourglass stops falling in the glass, and as the conversation continues it dawns on Pandora that they are in a place outside of time, in a place unending. When we, the audience see, the hour glass break and hear the thunder roar we know they are no longer in this world.
All from IMDB trivia section:
Van der Zee means "of the sea" in Dutch.
Esperanza, the name of the fishing village, is the Spanish for 'hope' which was the only thing left after Pandora opened her box in the Greek myth
On the beach, around 0:05:40, Geoffrey says aloud to himself, "'The measure of love is what one is willing to give up for it.' Who said that?" Though the quotation comes up a couple of times more (Around 0:24:50, he answers, "Some Greek said it - I can't remember who."), the question of who said it is never answered. The answer is, none other than Albert Lewin himself, the writer of the story and the screenplay and the director.