That Hamilton Woman (1941). 128 minutes. Directed by Alexander Korda. Starring Vivien Leigh (as Emma, Lady Hamilton), Sir Laurence Olivier (as Admiral Horatio Nelson), Alan Mowbray (as Sir William Hamilton), and Gladys Cooper (as Lady Frances Nelson).
If you have heard of That Hamilton Woman, it may be for one of the following reasons:
- First, it features Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier cast as Emma, Lady Hamilton and Admiral Horatio Nelson (respectively) in the period of the Napoleonic Wars. This casting is especially famous (or perhaps infamous) because Leigh and Olivier, while married to other people, had engaged in a well-known affair with each other prior to divorcing their partners and marrying each other, and in this film, in a situation that mimicked real life, they are cast as two people who are married to others and have a well-known affair together of international proportions.
- Second, it was Winston Churchill’s favorite film. Churchill was fond of movies of all kinds, but as Prime Minister, he privately screened That Hamilton Woman more than any other film.
The movie’s action is recounted to us by Leigh as an elderly Emma Hamilton in prison in Calais; in this older Emma, it is difficult to recognize Leigh either by face or voice. The story she tells begins on the day that her younger self arrived in Naples. Her beau Charles, who remains back home in England, had sent her to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, the English ambassador to Naples, to be taught something like manners (although Leigh’s Emma, a blacksmith’s daughter, speaks, dresses, and behaves in a manner that is already refined and suitable to courtly life). Emma, we learn, has a bit of a reputation back home, shall we say, for being a woman of loose character. Sir William reveals to her that he has essentially purchased her from Charles and wishes for her to remain with him in Naples permanently, news which upsets her greatly but which she accepts fairly quickly. Very soon after this scene, we learn that Emma and William have married, and Emma is now the respectable-sounding Lady Hamilton.
In spite of her purported social unacceptability, Emma nevertheless gains admission to the court of the King and Queen of Naples and is soon the toast of the town. There comes a day when Horatio Nelson, serving in the English navy, arrives in Naples, desperately in need of reinforcements to fight against Napoleon. Whereas Lord Hamilton can secure him a few thousand men, Emma with her charm and connections outdoes her husband and arranges for the queen of Naples to contribute 10,000. This negotiation initiates a relationship between Emma and Nelson that quickly becomes romantic.
In the years that follow, Nelson loses an arm and suffers a wounded eye, but Emma seems deeply moved by his injuries and even more fascinated with him as a result. Nelson is always coming and going according to the navy’s demands, but Emma throws parties for him and begins to worship him. Lord Hamilton is not a foolish man and one night in a nice speech reveals rather cooly that he knows what Emma and Nelson have been up to. He bears bad news: the dinner at which Emma had just enjoyed Nelson’s company will be their last — Nelson has last-minute orders to leave the port the next morning.
What follows is a gorgeous sequence in which Leigh, alerted by her mother that Nelson is secretly waiting to say goodbye to her in another part of the ambassadorial palace, flies through the house in lovely, long camera shots, her party gown billowing behind her as she goes, as the camera pans and pans until we see Nelson, waiting for her on her bedroom balcony facing the sea. Moments like this make use of the beautiful sets constructed by the director Alexander Korda’s brother, Vincent Korda. In addition to the gorgeous sets, Vivien Leigh looks astoundingly lovely in the film’s lush and beautiful costumes, and even Admiral Nelson wears ensembles that sparkle. I found myself staring intensely at Leigh’s jewels during the casino scene — that is, until I was distracted by Nelson’s uniform embellishments, which glimmer and shine in their own way, too.
Indeed, beauty is an important issue in the film. At times in the palace, our attention is drawn to the many objets d’art belonging to Lord Hamilton, including several portraits of Leigh as Emma. Early in the film, Lord Hamilton, upon revealing a newly unearthed Grecian sculpture of the female form, gives a nice speech about beauty in which he indicates that although the Grecian sculpture had been buried in dirt until recently, its past does not affect the pleasure that we take from it in the present. The point about the sculpture is clearly meant to underscore how he feels about Emma, whose scandalous past does not seem to bother him and to whom he interestingly always remains decent even in light of her affair with Nelson. In fact, the later loss of his precious works of art on a sea voyage to England seems to destroy him in ways that her infidelity does not.
How Lord Hamilton and Admiral Nelson’s wife react to and tolerate the affairs of their spouses is revealed in different halves of the film. By the end of the first half, Nelson must return to England, his superiors having heard of his affair with Emma. Deciding that his reputation is suffering as a result of it, they recall him, but of course, Emma resolves to journey to England with him with Lord Hamilton in tow. It is there that we meet Lady Frances Nelson, whose contact with her husband has been sporadic over the past several years and who astonishingly only learns of his infidelity through a trusted emissary before the admiral’s arrival in her rooms in England; I say “astonishingly” as it seems like most of the rest of England has heard about the Hamilton-Nelson affair by now and is busy singing about it in the taverns. The emissary encourages Lady Nelson to be forgiving, as does Lord Hamilton, who greets Lady Nelson shortly thereafter and obliquely advises her on how to conduct herself. That Hamilton Woman seems, therefore, to be as much about putting up with scandal as it is about the dramatic lives of the couple whose torrid affair is the scandal’s source. Perhaps for Leigh and Olivier, there was some attraction to the material as a kind of statement of what they themselves had experienced in the early phases of their relationship.
Now, on to the second reason you may have heard of this movie: Winston Churchill’s affection for it. With the advent of the Second World War, the producer, Alexander Korda, threw the project together with a strict shooting schedule (lasting only five weeks). His intention was to make a quick romantic historical picture that had a propagandistic undertone. He latched onto the idea of Napoleon’s conquests as a parallel for Hitler’s project of world domination, and in an early speech by Nelson, we can hear the parallels that the film encourages us to draw between the two leaders; some form of the word “dictator” comes up in this speech and in a later one as well. There is also an early scene where Emma begs her husband to explain to her what the wars are all about, and snatching her bonnet up from a globe, which she was using as a hat stand, she encourages him to illustrate the present conflict on its surface. Lord Hamilton gives a fairly Anglo-centric take on the wars: the English are the backbone of the efforts to take down the tyrant Napoleon. It is up to them to lead the way. Later, at the climactic Battle of Trafalgar, we see an English ship raise its flags and are treated to the image of sailors raising their heads to admire the sight. As they shout English mottoes in close-up, the point about the importance of war and the nobility of the British side is made fairly clearly. It certainly was made clear enough to the America First Committee, an isolationist organization which identified That Hamilton Woman, along with three other major film releases in 1941, as propaganda that was intended to stir American sentiment in favor of war involvement; it called for a boycott.
Churchill was a friend of Leigh’s and Olivier’s, and I think a case can be made for some of the similarities proposed in the film between the Napoleonic and Hitlerian conflicts and which Churchill himself must surely have seen, but the film does not linger long enough or deeply enough to make a more convincing logical case for the parallel. Some of the striking differences between Napoleon and Hitler get in the way of our making the rhetorical leap, but no matter. So much of the film’s appeal is emotional in nature rather than intellectual. It is true that the film’s plot is mainly driven by war, but the extent to which we see battling troops is limited to the final minutes of the film, when we see the aforementioned Battle of Trafalgar.
The main drama concerns the idea that two lovers such as Emma and Nelson could get swept up in history and suffer as a result of the conflict. Emma and Nelson do some great things for the cause, but there is also so much naughtiness in what they are up to that the film strangely models the devotion one should have to one’s country during wartime but claims as its heroes lovers who are largely devoted to themselves. There is something both admirable and deplorable about what Emma and Nelson are up to, and the movie seems to be completely comfortable with maintaining that kind of a dual claim about their characters. Presumably Korda must have run up against some measure of resistance to a story whose lovers carry on a sweeping international affair that the film takes very seriously and who are not particularly punished for it. There is something delicious and wonderfully indulgent about the Hamilton-Nelson romance masquerading as a point of national pride.
Incidentally, in The Last Lion, the three-volume biography of Churchill, historian William Manchester devotes some time early on to a description of Churchill’s film interests. He mentions the range of Churchill’s tastes and draws our attention specifically to an extremely sentimental-sounding film called Never Take No for an Answer, “the trashiest movie [Churchill] ever watched.” Manchester describes Churchill’s screening of it during his second premiership thus:
…[I]ts chief character was a little Italian orphan whose donkey, named Violetta, helped him run a grocery stand. Violetta sickened. She could be healed, the boy believed, if he could take her to that hub of miracles, the Shrine of Saint Francis. So the orphan embarked on a journey, appealing in vain to a series of clerics: priests, archdeacons, bishops, archbishops, cardinals. Each time the boy was turned down the camera would flash back to Violetta, sprawled in her stable, ready for the last rites. Churchill wept inconsolably. “Oh, the donkey’s dead!” he would sob. The others would reassure him: “No, no, Prime Minister, she’s still alive.” Churchill would recover and declare firmly: “If the donkey dies, I shan’t stay. I shall go out.” Finally the boy, in his finest hour, was granted an audience with the pope. The pontiff reversed the lower rulings and made an appointment at the shrine for Violetta. In the last scene a blazing cone of light, slanting down from heaven, revealed the donkey, bursting with health, beside her loyal, trudging little friend. The prime minister arose slowly from his chair, his eyes luminous and his cheeks streaming.
Have any of you ever seen this film? Do you know how or where I could access it? I have not run across it through the usual channels. Netflix has the 1973 remake, The Small Miracle, but I cannot locate the earlier version from 1951. It sounds delightfully awful, and I would love to see it.