That Hamilton Woman

Director: Alexander Korda
Screenplay: Walter Reisch & R.C. Sherriff
Stars: Vivien Leigh (Emma Lady Hamilton), Laurence Olivier (Lord Horatio Nelson), Alan Mowbray (Sir William Hamilton), Sara Allgood (Mrs. Cadogan-Lyon), Gladys Cooper (Lady Frances Nelson), Henry Wilcoxon (Captain Hardy), Heather Angel (A Streetgirl), Halliwell Hobbes (Rev. Nelson), Gilbert Emery (Lord Spencer), Miles Mander (Lord Keith), Ronald Sinclair (Josiah), Luis Alberni (King of Naples), Norma Drury Boleslavsky (Queen of Naples)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1941
Country: U.K.
That Hamilton Woman Criterion Collection DVD
That Hamilton WomanDeclared by Winston Churchill to be his favorite film, Alexander Korda’s That Hamilton Woman (released in the U.K. as Lady Hamilton) is both a sharp-edged propaganda film about the necessity of an aggressive national defense and a weepy romantic tragedy, all of which is spun out of the historical annals of British military heroics. The fact that the film’s two ends are so seamlessly interwoven is one of its great strengths, which also keeps it from playing as either one-note rah-rah jingoism or turgid melodrama. The film’s central love affair is what draws us in emotionally, but the backdrop of the late 18th-century Napoleonic wars as a stand-in for World War II gives it the weight of history, which also allows for grand scenes of violent sea battle to balance out all the ornate interiors and extravagant costumes, none of which suggests the film’s intensely rushed five-week production schedule.

That Hamilton Woman also benefits from some particularly canny casting by Hungarian émigré-turned-megaproducer and director Alexander Korda, in this case Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh as the national hero Lord Horatio Nelson and his illicit paramour, Emma, Lady Hamilton. The casting is brilliant on a number of levels, first and foremost because both Olivier and Leigh were extremely popular and critically adored at the time: He had just been nominated for back-to-back Oscars for the successful Hollywood productions Wuthering Heights (1939) and Rebecca (1940) and she had just won an Oscar for Gone With the Wind (1939).

However, their on-screen chemistry was sparked not just by their awards-showered acting prowess, but also by the fact that they were madly in love off-screen and had recently divorced their respective spouses and married each other after beginning an affair on the set of Fire Over England (1937), which, along with 21 Days (1940), was the only other film in which they starred together. Of course, off-screen passion doesn’t always translate to on-screen smoldering, as anyone who has ever suffered through the dullness of Madonna and Sean Penn in Shanghai Surprise (1986), Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe in Proof of Life (2001), or Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck in Gigli (2003) can attest. Yet, for whatever intangible reason, Leigh and Olivier translated their real-life passion to celluloid, making it curiously difficult to discern what was performed and was simply there.

In the tradition of many a tragic romance, That Hamilton Woman begins at the end with Emma (Leigh) broken, homeless, and thrown in jail for trying to steal a bottle of wine. It is in her jail cell that she tells the story of her life, which according to her began when she was 18 and traveled with her mother (Sara Allgood) to the grand palace of Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), the British ambassador to Naples. At the time Emma, a former courtesan and dancing girl from Liverpool, was engaged to Sir Hamilton’s nephew, but she soon learns that the relationship has been essentially bought out by the elder uncle. Sir Hamilton has a penchant for collecting beautiful items, and Emma is just the next addition to his ever-growing collection.

She first meets Lord Nelson (Olivier), a dashing admiral in the British Navy, when he arrives at the Hamilton palace begging the ambassador to convince the king of Naples to aid him in fighting Napoleon’s encroaching fleet. The ambassador can’t see past the necessities of formality and bureaucracy, so Emma cuts through the red tape and goes directly to her friend, the queen of Naples, and immediately Lord Nelson has everything he needs. This is the first of several instances in which she will help Nelson’s military endeavors, which endears her to him and soon leads to a passionate love affair that threatens to scandalize all of Britain. Every effort is made to keep them apart for the sake of propriety, but nothing can separate them emotionally, even if at times they are away from each for years while he is at sea fighting for England’s protection. The constant discussion of Napoleon’s desire for complete domination of Europe plays as a barely--and I mean barely--disguised argument for why Hitler posed such a threat is cleared aimed at then-isolationist American audiences, while the depiction of Nelson’s single-handed bravery and defeat of Napoleon was clearly intended to rouse the spirits of Britons during the blitz.

The scandalous nature of Emma and Nelson’s affair causes the film to run into significant trouble with Hollywood’s Production Code Administration (PCA), which could not abide the film’s obvious glorification of an adulterous relationship, particularly one that resulted in the birth of an illegitimate child, thus proving without doubt that the relationship was as intensely sexual as it was emotional. Korda argued with PCA head Joseph Breen and eventually agreed to shoot an additional scene in which Nelson admits to his father that his relationship with Emma was wrong in order to ensure that the film played in the U.S. The scene didn’t last long, though, as Korda eventually cut it out, thus leaving Nelson and Emma’s intense love affair outside the bounds of Hollywood moralizing.

Instead, Korda chose to downplay the sting of adultery by ensuring that Emma and Nelson’s respective spouses are depicted as cold, distant, and lacking in the kind of love and attention they so desperately need. As previously mentioned, Sir Hamilton is an older man who clearly wanted Emma not for her love, but for her adornment, while Nelson’s wife Frances (Gladys Cooper) is a stern, calculating woman whose stiff upper lip is contested only by Nelson’s own. Thus, it is easy to see why Emma and Nelson would be drawn to each other, as their other relationships are clearly lacking. Their chemistry is also intensified by their opposing personalities, which click together like puzzle pieces: She is lively, vivacious, and socially connected, whereas he is steadfast, intense, and always focused on the necessity of national protection. This, in essence, is what makes their romance work: She is able to forego her shallow social ambitions in order to help Nelson in a great cause and he is able to ease off his national duties to recognize the necessity of personal connection. They were made for each other.

That Hamilton Woman Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by film historian Ian Christie
  • Video interview with author and editor Michael Korda, Alexander’s nephew, who discusses growing up in the Korda family and the making of That Hamilton Woman
  • U.S. theatrical trailer
  • “Alexander Korda Presents,” a 1941 promotional radio piece for the film
  • Essay by film critic Molly Haskell
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 8, 2009

    Criterion’s new high-definition transfer was made from a fine-grain master positive and digitally restored via MTI’s DRS system, PixelFarm’s PFClean system, and Digital Vision’s DVNR system, resulting a nicely contrasted black-and-white image that shows good detail and maintains a pleasantly film-like appearance (like other Criterion films in the Academy aspect ratio, it is slightly windowboxed). The digital restoration has removed almost all instances of dirt and noise, although there are several points in the film were white vertical hairlines are noticeable. Black levels are a little soft at times, but shadow detail is good throughout. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the optical tracks and digitally restored, sounds smooth and pleasant for an early 1940s track.
    Film historian Ian Christie offers an informative and well researched screen-specific audio commentary that complements the film nicely with a great deal of information about both the film’s production and the historical background it depicts. Michael Korda, the nephew of Alexander Korda, appears in a new video interview to discuss growing up in the Korda family and the making of That Hamilton Woman (he also dishes on some scandalous rumors, including one that Vivien Leigh was a nymphomaniac). Finally, the disc includes the film’s U.S. theatrical trailer and “Alexander Korda Presents,” a fairly lengthy 1941 promotional radio piece for the film.

    Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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