Hamilton Woman” (“Lady Hamilton” in Great Britain) was one of the films made to
encourage American support for Britain during its darkest days of WWII. The treatment was suggested to
director/producer Alexander Korda by Winston Churchill and supposedly became
his favorite movie. He once claimed to
have seen it 83 times. Churchill, a fan
of Horatio Nelson, wanted a movie made about him and his famous romance with
Emma Hamilton. It was a tale all
Englishmen were familiar with, but it would have been revelatory for American
audiences. Korda had the brilliant idea
of casting the current Hollywood celebrity couple – the newly wed Laurence
Olivier and Vivien Leigh. It didn’t hurt
marketing that their romance had some parallels to those of the movie’s characters. The actors had fallen in love and conducted a
public affair while still married. It
was their third movie together. They had
begun their affair during the filming of “Fire Over England” (1937). The
movie was scripted by Walter Reisch (“Ninotchka”) and R.C. Sheriff (“Journey’s
End”). They had the ulterior motive of
slyly tying the tale to Britain’s current situation. They succeeded in drawing the attention of
the America First Committee, which encouraged a boycott of it and similar films
(“The Great Dictator”, “Foreign Correspondent”, “The Mortal Storm”). And Korda drew the attention of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee because of accusations he facilitated MI-5 agents
in their ferreting out German activities and infiltration of isolationist
groups in America. Fortunately for
Korda, his appearance before the committee was aborted by the attack on Pearl
Harbor. The movie was well-received by
critics and audiences. It was nominated
for four Academy Awards - Sound, Art
Direction (Alexander’s brother Vincent, who did a wonderful job on a small
budget), Cinematography, and Effects. It
won for Best Sound.
movie opens in Calais where an alcoholic prostitute is arrested and thrown in
jail. She shocks her cell mates by
revealing that she used to be the famous Lady Hamilton (Leigh). Her tale results in a flashback to her better
days. When she was 18 and significantly
more beautiful than her current jailed self, she arrived in Naples at the home
of Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray). Although engaged to his nephew, Hamilton has
paid off his nephew’s debts and “acquired” Emma. She is offended at first, but what’s a
stripper to do but make the best of it.
And the best of it is a lavish lifestyle with a husband who only
requires she grace his arm. He Eliza
Doolittle’s her and soon she is running his Tara. Two years later, in walks the dashing, but
officious, Capt. Horatio Nelson (Olivier).
There is a spark there and when she intervenes with the rulers of Naples
to support the British, Nelson is impressed.
At this point, the movie becomes a chronicle of Nelson’s career and the
evolution of their romance. Nelson’s
greatest hits are simply alluded to. If
you are British, you can fill in the blanks.
If you are American, read up on it.
The romance progresses to the point where Sir William snarkily
acknowledges it and Horatio has some very awkward moments with his wife. But love will prevail and they manage to
weather the storms. While sailing by
Nelson’s successes at the Nile and Copenhagen, the movie goes all in for the
climactic Battle of Trafalgar. And then
it’s back to the Calais jail cell for the what-ifs.
Hamilton Woman” takes its title from the reaction of British crowds upon seeing
the couple in public in London. The
original title of the film was to be “The Enchantress”, which might have been
more accurate about Emma, but a 1941 movie could not have lived up to that
title. The Production Code was at its
height of ludicrousness, so this famous love affair had to be depicted as
chaste. Olivier and Leigh could not be
shown in bed together and not even slightly disrobed. How Emma became pregnant with Nelson’s son is
left to the imagination. The passion had
to come through the actor’s interaction and this is partially successful. Olivier portrays Nelson as upright, but
susceptible to a comely ankle. Leigh has
more fun with the flirtatious Emma.
There is some chemistry from the real-life couple, but the main appeal
of the movie to viewers would have been seeing them act together. Leigh is gorgeous, as is to be expected. You don’t get the green eyes because the
movie is black and white, but she still has the wow factor. This despite the low budget which resulted in
make-up only on the side of the face the camera was on. She was the perfect choice to play a woman
who was painted by George Romney.
Thankfully, the movie spares us from an accurate depiction of her portly
later years. (Leigh in a fat suit would
not have been good for box office.)
Hamilton Woman” is not a war movie until it gets to Trafalgar. This sequence almost makes the movie worth
the wait for war movie buffs (who tend to not be romance buffs). It does a good job depicting the battle and
includes the memorable moments like the signal “England expects everyone to do
their duty” and Nelson’s refusal to dress less like a peacock begging to be
shot. There is plenty of action and
cannonading by the models, but it is hard to follow who is who and the movie made
the poor decision not to depict the “Nelson touch” by having Olivier explain
his plan to his officers. In fact, the
movie makes no case for Nelson as a great leader. (And frankly, it is not clear that he was a
great lover either.) Nelson’s death is
spot on and surprisingly uses the accurate “Kiss me, Hardy” last words (instead
of “Kismet, Hardy”). I wonder how they
got that past the censor.
a war movie, “That Hamilton Woman” comes up short. It reminds of “Gone with the Wind” in that it
is more of a romance set in a war. It
gets credit for being based on a true story that deserved Hollywood
treatment. Even though it had a hidden
agenda, it is not overly patriotic and I doubt viewers left the theater and
immediately wrote a check to England. I
bet most simply enjoyed it for its entertainment value, which was high for the
time, but seems tame today. A miniseries
on Nelson is definitely needed today.
Why has this not happened, BBC?
GRADE = C
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie is
surprisingly accurate for a historical romance.
Emma was born poor and early in her life had to fend for herself. She was blessed by striking beauty which
meant her career path was obvious, especially for an ill-educated woman. As early as age 15 she was a concubine for a
wealthy gentleman. She would dance nude
on tables at his bacchanalian parties.
She eventually settled with George Grenville. He farmed her out to the artist George
Romney, who became obsessed with her. He
did a lot of paintings of her and made her a celebrity. Grenville decided he needed to sleep with
someone who was wealthy, so when he got engaged to an heiress and she was not
into open marriages, he shuffled her off to Naples to entrance his uncle. She did arrive with her mother. Hamilton was 55 and newly widowed. She was the best present he ever
received. He was an art collector and
she was living art. She was less excited,
but once she realized her “vacation” on Naples was meant to be permanent, she
decided to make the best of it. Sir
William was kind and doting and they fell in love. When they married, he was 60 and she was
26. She was quite the hostess and soon
was best friends with Queen Maria Carolina (sister of Marie Antoinette). Her fame swept Europe when she came up with
her performance art called “Attitudes”.
She would dress up and portray famous statues and paintings. Nelson had been married six years when they
first met. He was infatuated from the
start. They corresponded and the love
grew. When he returned, crippled, lacking
some of his dash, she still fainted in his arms and the romance was on. As the movie shows, they were often apart for
She and Sir William came to
England when she was pregnant with Horatia.
Sir William didn’t mind. The press
loved her and was not critical, at first.
When Fanny gave him an ultimatum, he chose Emma. Nelson bought a home and they lived together,
with Sir William and her mother. She
spent lavishly decorating it. When Nelson
left again, the loss of a second baby at age 6 weeks, increased her loneliness
and encouraged her depression. She began
gambling, drinking, binge eating, and spending.
When Nelson died, she grieved for weeks.
She got little from his will, but she continued to spend her way into
deep debt. She did spend some time in
debtors prison from 1811-1812 and then moved to Calais to escape her creditors. She was now an alcoholic and addicted to
laudanum. She died in poverty in 1815 at