That Hamilton Woman (1941) opens with a once well-off woman trying to steal a bottle of wine from a shop in Calais. She’s caught and thrown in jail with another woman who joined in the brouhaha that followed her arrest. Starring Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier, That Hamilton Woman is a propaganda movie that Churchill asked the director Alexander Korda to make to appeal to Americans and convince the public that joining the war was the right thing to do.
Based on history, Leigh stars as Emma, who’s frequently changed her name about as frequently as she’s changed lovers. Her last lover, whom she thinks will marry her sent her to Naples to stay with his uncle, an ambassador who has a passion for collecting art — and beautiful women if they come his way. Though she and her mother who’s with her are worldly enough to know better, Emma’s surprised that her “fiancé” is going to marry a rich woman to help him out of financial troubles. He arranged for his uncle to take Emma offer her hands. Jilted, she’s furious at the trickery, but she’s an opportunist and winds up marrying the old uncle and making the most of life as an ambassador’s wife.
She meets Horatio Nelson, the famous naval leader who beat Napolean, time and time again. Though their both married, they become intimate. Leigh’s perfect as the coquettish and politically astute Emma. Olivier is commanding as Nelson. We see the couple across many years from when they first meet, to when Nelson returns after 5 years at war. It’s the only movie I’ve seen where the leading man is still dashing despite losing an arm and an eye.
In Naples the couple is fairly open about their love. It maddens Nelson’s son who’s stationed on his ship and he’s the first to refer to Emma as “That Hamilton Woman.” Town gossips soon use that term as well, but it doesn’t bother Emma. She’s got chutzpah galore. I read the history and this was a woman who used to dance naked on tables in her early days in “show business.” So the late 18th century wasn’t as straight-laced as you might think.
The Ambassador Hamilton enjoys Emma more as an ornament than anything else. While he asks Emma to be discreet, he isn’t all that hurt by her affair. Nelson’s wife is another story. She’s been waiting for him for 7 years and has gotten wind of “that Hamilton woman.” The stern and upright, Mrs. Nelson meets her husband in London when he returns after defeating Napolean’s navy at Trafalgar, in a battle scene that’s wonderfully shot. She’s a plain woman who’s strict and old fashioned. I’m not sure whether the real Lady Nelson was like this and think the film would be stronger if she were actually a rather attractive nice woman. This choice makes it easy to side with Nelson. I prefer more complexity and reality.
Be that as it may, the film is dramatic and it was fun to watch Vivien Leigh in a role other than Scarlett O’Hara. Since we see in the first scene that Emma ends up on the skids, I’m not spoiling anything by discussing that. I felt sorry that she ended up like that. It didn’t seem right that her husband, who never insisted she end her affair, died penniless and then she got no money from Nelson. According to the Criterion Collection bonus feature with the director’s nephew, history’s unclear about what happened to Emma, but the moral code of the day required that to show an adulterous couple, you would have to show that dire consequences follow that sort of life choice.
All in all, That Hamilton Woman, was an entertaining way to learn about 18th and early 19th century British history. Nelson’s military acumen and self-sacrifice are laudable and though I doubt the film would succeed in convincing Americans it’s time to jump into WWII.
Again, the Criterion Collection’s bonus features were worth seeing. Michael Korda, whose uncle directed the film and whose father was the art director, provided lots on insights into its making and the collaboration between his father and uncle. He also described Vivien Leigh’s tempestuous relationship with Olivier whose personality favored more even-keel people.