That Hamilton Woman, the 1941 British production staring Vivien Leigh as Emma Harte Hamilton and Laurence Olivier as Horatio Nelson, is another example of twisted history used as a thin veil for modern issues. The production is lavish if a bit slap-dash and both Leigh and Olivier are gorgeous in a way that neither Hamilton nor Nelson were during their scandalous affair.
The story is almost ridiculously familiar, but it is muddled up to such a degree in the film that I quit paying attention to the details and just marvelled at the costumes and scenery. That sentence, I realize, doesn't speak well of the film at all and perhaps I am being too harsh. Having said that, I find that familiar stories, on film, in books, etc., that creep particularly far away from historical accuracy tend to be boring. And so, unfortunately, is Alexander Korda's narrative.
Emma meets Horatio when she has only just married the many-years-her-senior Ambassador to Naples, William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray, appropriately wry and jaded). Though this arrangement seems to suit her, she cannot help being swept off her feet by the handsome sea Captain who is not only young but has both arms and two good eyes. It's baffling, really, since part of the charm of the Hamilton/Nelson affair was that they met and fell in love not because they were both young and lovely but because of sincere mutual attraction. He was a beat up husk of a man and she was a chubby former nymph who had quite obviously been passed around when he sailed into Naples harbor and swept her off her feet. I guess the movies have to have their glamour.
And That Hamilton Woman is nothing if not glamorous. The sets and costumes are gorgeous, the acting, as you would expect, is spectacular and the special effects during the Battle of Trafalgar scenes are particularly breathtaking:
The film won an Oscar for Best Sound and even today it is easy to see why. Hearing the balls fly during battle is overwhelming. Certainly, it must be very close to what the real experience would have sounded like.
It is too little too late, however. Prior to the big battle, Lord Hamilton slips into obscurity (he in fact died with both Emma and Horatio at his side) once the action moves to England. Horatio is briefly confronted by his wife, the long suffering Frances Nesbitt (a properly prune-faced Gladys Cooper), who has been taking care of his wheelchair-bound father Reverend Nelson (Halliwell Hobbes; hilarious) all these long years. And of course there is the child Horatia, who Emma "registers" as the daughter of "...Horatio Thompson, a sailor". No mention is made of Horatia's poor twin sister, left at a foundling home because Emma couldn't handle two babies. Then, ever so mysteriously, Nelson retires and he and the still thin and lovely Emma move on to an estate in the country.
The whole point of the movie, and the focus of many an unfortunate and distracting speech about tyranny and mother England, is that the Nazis are out there. So, of course, Nelson must come out of retirement and win the Battle of Trafalgar with Bonaparte a handy substitute for Hitler. The inevitable occurs. Nelson is shot by a French sniper and his death throes and final speech are artfully filmed through gauze and gels. Of course he wants the Admiralty to look after Emma. They don't and she is driven from her estate, finally ending up a penniless drunk in Calais, steeling booze and going to debtors' prison. Because we all know the worst will happen to bad girls like Emma.
Here is the link to the IMDb page for That Hamilton Woman, if you've an interest. The movie is certainly worth putting in the Netflix queue. It's visually charming and it is a treat to watch married lovers Leigh and Olivier play off one another on screen. But as films about history go, this one is more fiction that fact.