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That Hamilton Woman (1941)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of That Hamilton Woman (1941)
DirectorAlexander Korda
Production CompanyAlexander Korda Film Productions
ScriptR.C. Sherriff, Walter Reisch
PhotographyRudolph Maté

Cast: Laurence Olivier (Lord Horation Nelson); Vivien Leigh (Lady Emma Hamilton); Alan Mowbray (Sir William Hamilton); Henry Wilcoxon (Captain Hardy); Gladys Cooper (Lady Frances Nelson)

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The tragic love affair between Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton, as told by the latter after she ends up in prison years after his death.

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Alexander Korda had left Britain for the US in 1939, attracting much criticism for apparently abandoning his adopted home at such a difficult time (it is now believed he was asked to go by Churchill to perform an intelligence role). That Hamilton Woman, released in 1941 (and known as The Lady Hamilton in the US), was another of Korda's lavish historical dramas, in the vein of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), and The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934).

Korda wanted to make a propaganda film, but with America still neutral and in isolationist mood, this was dangerous. Napoleon served as a useful parallel for Hitler, while the scandalous affair of Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton helped to disguise the propaganda message. All the same, Korda, alongside some Hollywood studios, found himself a target for isolationists and pro-Germans. He was due to appear before a Senate Subcommittee when the bombing of Pearl Harbour saved him from embarrassment and, probably, expulsion.

The film is both the real-life love story of Admiral Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton, and a call to arms against the threat posed to Europe by Hitler, in which Korda deployed all his trademarks of spectacle, the recreation of historical events (with a sometimes casual approach to historical accuracy), a lush music score and gorgeous art direction and costume design - which sought to recreate the look of paintings by Romney, Turner, Gainsborough, and A. W. Devis - and the 'realism' of the battle scenes.

Film morality at that time decreed that 'adulterous parties' should be seen to be punished, and so, after Nelson is killed in battle, Emma Hamilton is left to end her days in poverty and oblivion (she died aged 50, in 1815, the year of the final defeat of Napoleon). Nevertheless, the film came under criticism from censor Joseph Breen, who disapproved of the script and insisted on the insertion of a scene in which Emma's father admonishes her for the affair. Korda was never happy with the scene, and later had it removed.

In the lead roles, Korda cast the most famous and glamorous show business couple of their day, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, who had married just the year before, and who were already well-known to American audiences. Publicity for the film made much of the way in which the off-screen affair between the two actors mirrored the relationship they now played out on screen - both had been married to other people at the time. Olivier had already fought against another threat to England, the Spanish Armada, in Korda's Fire Over England (1937) - the film on which he began his adulterous affair with Vivien Leigh.

The film was seen by some critics as bad history but good British propaganda; the British fleet is the safeguard against dictators with world-conquering ambitions. One contemporary review called it 'untrammeled by historical fact', but the script, co-written by playwright R.C. Sherriff, was in fact based on primary sources such as letters and memoirs.

Janet Moat

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Video Clips
1. Emma's story (2:05)
2. Emma at her best (3:28)
3. Farewell (4:09)
4. The victor of Copenhagen (2:05)
That Hamilton Woman (3:22)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)
Leigh, Vivien (1913-1967)
Alexander Korda and London Films