July 9, 2009

That Hamilton Woman (1941)
Grade: 65/100

Director: Alexander Korda
Stars: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Alan Mowbray

What it's about. A historical romance and drama set circa 1791 to 1805. Emma (Vivien Leigh) has British working class origins, and has earned her bread through a means scandalous to those of noble birth. On the other hand, she's young, gorgeous, vivacious, and intelligent. One might say she's cunning, but that would be unkind, given that we are supposed to view her favorably.

Emma has been passed from one nobleman to another. The story picks up with Emma as the guest of the much older Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), the British ambassador to Naples (Italy). Hamilton is a kindly art collector who appears to have no sexual interest in Emma, and marries her because a diplomat needs a good hostess. Emma is successful as a socialite and becomes friends with the good King and Queen of Naples (respectively Luis Alberni and Norma Drury Boleslavsky).

Her connections come in handy when Captain (and future Lord) Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier, then Leigh's husband) arrives in Naples to request men and supplies. Emma intervenes on his behalf, then does so again and again. Nelson eventually falls under the spell of Emma, despite his own marriage to cold, meddlesome Frances (Gladys Cooper).

Nelson, of course, goes on to great Naval glory, defeating the fleets of France as well as others. Military success and its attendant honors are paid for with Nelson's right arm, right eye, and health. He is killed at Trafalgar (it's not a spoiler, surely you know your history), and since William Hamilton has also died, Emma is left in dire poverty. C'est la vie.

How others will see it. This period romance is targeted to women, who will find Vivien Leigh to be both beautiful and sympathetic. Men have less to savor, aside from Leigh's comely features and siren speaking voice, although there is a dramatic enactment of the famous Battle of Trafalgar.

Classic film fans will relish the presence of Leigh, the heroine from one of the most important films of all time, Gone With the Wind (1939). Olivier is regarded as a great actor, and it is interesting to see the husband and wife team acting together. Gladys Cooper was a one-time pinup girl, but by the sound era was fated to play upper class snob supporting roles.

That Hamilton Woman was well regarded upon release. It received four Oscar nominations, including one win in a minor category.

How I felt about it. That Hamilton Woman was released in 1941, at a time when England was at war with Germany, which controlled essentially all of Europe and was bombing England every night. The United States was technically neutral until December of that year, following Pearl Harbor. This movie, a British production filmed in Hollywood, was no mere costume romance. It is laced with propaganda designed to bring the United States into World War II in support of England.

The imdb.com trivia section for That Hamilton Woman states that Winston Churchill loved the movie and saw it many dozens of times. Of greater significance, Churchill, then Prime Minister of England, had a "hobby" of ghost writing for films, with strictly political intentions.

Two speeches within this apparent costume romance may have been from the pen of Churchill. In the first, Hamilton explains the ways of the world to his wide-eyed wife. "There are always men who for the sake of their insane ambition, want to destroy what other people build. And therefore, [England] has to send out its ships again and again to fight those who want to dictate their will to others."

Later, Nelson pontificates his distrust of a treaty with France. "You are celebrating a peace with Napoleon Bonaparte. Peace is a very beautiful word, as long as the [motive] of peace is behind it. But gentlemen, you will never make peace with Napoleon. He doesn't mean peace today, he just wants to gain a little time to rearm himself at sea, and make new alliances with Italy and Spain all to one purpose to destroy our empire. Years ago, I said the same thing at Naples, I begged them, I entreated them not to give way, but they wouldn't listen to me and they paid the price. That was a little kingdom, miles away in the Meditterean, but now it is England, our own land. Napoleon can never be master of the world until he has smashed us up and believe me gentlemen, he means to be master of the world. You cannot make peace with dictators, you have to destroy them, wipe them out."

Substitute Hitler for Napolean, and with few other changes you have a polemic against Germany. At the time, That Hamilton Woman was hardly alone in such service to the British Empire. Mrs. Miniver, a more blatant depiction of the British plight versus evil Germany, won the 1943 Academy Award for Best Picture.