July 9, 2011

"Lie back and think of England": That Hamilton Woman (Alexander Korda, 1941)

This entry is part of the Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Appreciation Blog-A-Thon hosted by Kendra of VivAndLarry.com

That Hamilton Woman is a film, I'm slightly ashamed to say, I hadn't even heard of before I went searching for films to cover for the Viv and Larry Blogathon. While thinking of films to write about, I realized I hadn't actually seen many films by either Vivien Leigh or Laurence Olivier: Gone With the WindA Streetcar Named Desire, and Rebecca, of course, but beyond the biggies, I was woefully ignorant. My loss.

On the Viv & Larry-o-Meter, That Hamilton Woman scores a perfect 10/10: Leigh was just coming off an Oscar win in Gone With the Wind and Olivier was experiencing the apex of Hollywood fame with Wuthering Heights and Rebecca. The couple was newly married and were, on a shallower note, probably two of the best looking people in the universe at the time. 

The newly minted Mr. and Mrs. Olivier

Hungarian-born, British super-producer Alexander Korda, himself no slouch in the hot properties department (on the heels of The Thief of Baghdad) needed hot stuff to drum up support for the war effort in the country it really mattered: America. The Oliviers' newfound Hollywood superstardom made them the perfect British ambassadors for Korda's new historical romance/propaganda film, That Hamilton Woman

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the film tells the story of British naval hero Lord Horatio Nelson (Olivier) and his infamous, passionate affair with courtesan Emma Hamilton (Leigh). That Hamilton Woman is rousing entertainment from the get-go, discarding with historical accuracy when it doesn't suit the adventuresome, romantic spirit of the screenplay. Rudolph Mate's gorgeous photography flatters the impossibly handsome leads to an almost absurd degree (the real Lord Nelson was short, frail, one-eyed, one-armed invalid and Lady Hamilton, though beautiful, was overweight for much of their relationship). By re-casting one of England's most notorious and scandalous affairs as one of the screen's most glamorous, sexy and patriotic love stories, That Hamilton Woman is a brilliant piece of myth-making. Korda's film functions as exquisitely crafted propaganda, as much for the English war effort as it is for Classical Hollywood filmmaking. 

Re-casting history

Perhaps to strengthen the film's claim to historical accuracy, Alexander Korda made use of two famous pictorial representations of Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson. The first, George Romney's famous portrait of the Lady, is recreated as the first image we see of the young Emma (the story is narrated in flashback by Leigh in old-age makeup). Hamilton was, in reality, one of the era's most famous artist's models. In a bit of coincidental Viv & Larry trivia, one of Romney's portraits of Lady Hamilton would later appear on the cover of an edition of Wuthering Heights, the adaptation of that book being Laurence Olivier's first Hollywood role. 

Certainly, the resemblance in the two women is uncanny and was justly exploited by Korda's publicity department. 

"Emma Hart in a Straw Hat" by George Romney, 1782-84

Leigh as Emma, Lady Hamilton

While the first re-created artwork is obvious as a re-creation (a painting in a frame), the second is subtler and more effective, and requires a knowledge of the original painting to understand the homage. 

The death of Lord Nelson is one of the most famous events in English lore and history and as such, has been re-staged many times by many artists. 

The Death of Nelson, 21 October 1805" by Arthur William Devis, 1807

The death of Nelson, recreated 

Although perhaps an instantly recognizable tableau to British audiences, I for one, didn't recognize the shot as a reference to Davies' painting, as I assume American audiences in 1941 didn't either. Of course the shot, which begins as a close-up on Nelson's maimed body and slowly tracks back to a wide shot of the officers and crew gathered at his deathbed, is still an emotionally effective climax to the picture, whether one recognizes the reference or not.

"There is no 'then.' There is no 'after.'"

That Hamilton Woman was reputedly Winston Churchill's favorite film--and no wonder given its stalwart mythologizing of Lord Nelson translates none too subtly to mythologizing of Churchill himself. In 1940, Winston seemed like a goddamned seer, having correctly predicted, and warned of, Hitler's being, you know, totally evil. If he hadn't been in the midst of the most dire political conflict of the 20th century, I image Churchill would have been damned smug. 

The Nelson/Churchill myth-making is an interesting by-product of a film that gleans its uniqueness from telling the Nelson story from the point of view of his mistress. Regardless of how strong a character Emma is (very) or how great Leigh's performance is (very), this is still Lord Nelson's story. It is his acts of bravery and sacrifice that inspire a nation at war; Lady Hamilton, for all her refinements and for as much as Nelson loves her, remains a fallen woman. 

From this...

The film opens several years after Nelson's death. Emma Hamilton is an old woman reduced to begging for spare change. In a drunken stupor, she's jailed and there, narrates the story of her former glory to another prostitute. When the former Lady finishes her story, her fellow inmate eagerly asks her what happened after Nelson died, what happened next. Emma's sullen reply: "There is no 'then.' There is no 'after.'" Because both Nelson and Hamilton were married--to other people--their relationship could never gain legitimacy: Emma and the couple's bastard child were left to rot in Parisian port cities, penniless. 

...to this

The film's dim attitude towards the sacrifices Lady Hamilton made for England--once a whore, always a whore, that kind of thing--is a rather bleak view of things for a film called, after all, That Hamilton Woman. But the title is more a scandalized accusation that a heroic exaltation. And the film's less than happy ending is curious considering how glamorous and downright beautiful the rest of the picture is. It is, in the end, a wartime movie and filmed entirely pre-Pearl Harbor, an Allied victory in WWII was far from certain. 

"Lie back and think of England"

The idea of self-sacrifice for King and Country was so strong in all aspects of this production, it translated in a very real sense to issues of national security. At the time of filming, Alexander Korda was being investigated by the United States government for meddling in our isolation affairs and trying to incite the country to war. By the time the film was released, however, the United States had finally entered the war and Korda was no longer being investigated. It has long been suspected that Korda was doing more than making propaganda films for good ol' Winston. Korda was knighted in 1942, ostensibly for his contributions to national morale making patriotic pictures during the war, but many still believe he was doing some spying for The Crown on the side.

All of this political intrigue backstory has little impact on the film as seen today. That Lady Hamilton is completely watchable and enjoyable as an historical romance, starring two very pretty people speaking very pretty lines in very pretty costumes and in very pretty sets. It represents a truly forgotten era of filmmaking. Korda's production was, if you can believe it, shot in five weeks on a wartime budget of strict rationing. The limitations don't show at all. That Hamilton Woman is as beautiful and thrilling as any film of its kind. 

Further Reading


  1. Fab post, Kristen! It is a beautifully shot film, isn't it? Vincent Korda's sets and Matte's cinematography are brilliant. Interestingly, Larry and Vivien only decided to do the film because they needed money to get back home to England after having lost it all during their run of Romeo and Juliet on Broadway!

  2. I confess I haven't seen this film, but the photos of Leigh in it are stunning. I'll definitely put it on my list. Really enjoyed your post, particularly the images of the original paintings you included - it will certainly enrich my viewing experience.

  3. I find the whole production history quite interesting as, like you said, Viv and Larry were in it for the money but managed to give amazing performances; Korda was doing it for almost no money, with a truncated schedule--and these cutbacks and revisions aren't perceptible in the least when you watch the film. Genius piece of filmmaking.

  4. Great post! This is a great movie. If you ever get a chance to see anymore of their films do watch them. As a matter of fact here is a link to a youtube page with a lot of Vivien's movies:


    Enjoy:) Once again great blog.

  5. grandoldmovies -- Thanks for your kind comments! Leigh sure is stunning, isn't she? I was joking with Kendra the other day that watching so many films with Viv and Larry had caused me physical pain from their collective beauty. An exaggeration--but not much of one!

    Anon -- Thanks for that link, I'll certainly be filling in my Viv filmography with that one!

  6. Your quite welcome let us know what you think.


  7. Beautiful post! It's been such an age since I've seen That Hamilton Woman, but your detail bright it all back to me quite quickly. I love all the insight you gave into the backstory of life during the time of filming. And as to the bit about them, their costumes, their lines, etc. being so very pretty, I couldn't agree more!