The Criterion Blogathon: That Hamilton Woman (1941)
As fans of Vivien Leigh and Lord Laurence Olivier well know, That Hamilton Woman (1941), known as Lady Hamilton in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, was the third and final film they made together. It was also the only film that they made together while they were married. That having been said, the historical significance of That Hamilton Woman goes well beyond the involvement of the Oliviers.
That Hamilton Woman had its basis in actual history. The film chronicled the life of Emma, Lady Hamilton (Vivien Leigh), who became the wife of Sir William Hamilton (at the time Britain's ambassador to Naples) and then the mistress of Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté (Laurence Olivier). Lady Hamilton and Admiral Nelson's love affair had been previously portrayed on screen in the German silent movie Lady Hamilton in 1921. That film was based on two novels by two novels by Heinrich Vollrath Schumacher, but That Lady Hamilton would have an original screenplay by Walter Reisch and R. C. Sherriff.
That Hamilton Woman was produced and directed by British filmmaker Alexander Korda. Mr. Korda had begun his film career in his native Hungary in 1914, writing the script for the film Watchhouse in the Carpathians. Over the next several years Mr. Korda made films in several different countries, including Germany and the United Kingdom. From 1926 to 1932 he made films in Hollywood and afterwards made films in the United Kingdom. The outbreak of World War II began just as production on Alexander Korda's remake of The Thief of Baghdad was underway. It was completed in Hollywood where Mr. Korda would work until 1943.
With That Hamilton Woman Alexander Korda sought to accomplish two things. First, he had been requested by Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself to make a film that would support the United Kingdom's war effort. Second, he wanted to make another film with Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. He had previously produced Fire Over England (the film on which Miss Leigh and Mr. Olivier's romance had blossomed) and 21 Days, on both of which he worked with the two actors.
While That Hamilton Woman was meant to serve as wartime propaganda, Alexander Korda made sure that the focus of the film was firmly on the romance between Lady Hamilton and Admiral Nelson. This caused some concern for the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America's Production Code Administration (PCA), headed by Joseph Breen. In October 1940 Joseph Breen actually called screenwriter R. C. Sheriff to his office to tell him that the PCA could not approve the film for release in the United States. Quite simply the PCA was concerned about the affair between Admiral Nelson and Lady Hamilton, which constituted adultery. Before the PCA would consider approving the film changes would have to be made in which it is shown the two lovers are punished for their affair. Screenwriters Walter Reisch and R. C. Sherriff then set about rewriting the script so that Admiral Nelson is reprimanded by his pious father for his sins and Lady Hamilton suffers a much worse fate. These changes appeased the PCA.
The fact that That Hamilton Woman was essentially wartime propaganda caused no concern for the Production Code Administration, and very little at the film's distributor United Artists as well. According to the film's music director Miklós Rózsa one of the executives at United Artists did object to the use of the song "Rule Britannia" in the battle scenes, which he thought made it too blatant that the film was British propaganda. Messrs. Rózsa and Korda then simply left the song's less readily recognised verses in the film, with its chorus only heard as instrumental music.
Given the film's timeliness, Alexander Korda wanted to get That Hamilton Woman out as soon as possible. In fact, the script was not fully completed at the time shooting began. That Hamilton Woman was shot in only six weeks between September and October 1940. While the film was shot very quickly, Alexander Korda spared very little in the way of expense on That Hamilton Woman. He even had a fleet of miniature ships built with miniature cannons that actually fired.
While Alexander Korda focused firmly on the romance between Lady Hamilton and Admiral Nelson, the status of That Hamilton Woman as British wartime propaganda was not lost on many. The review in The New York Times noted that the film had "...has some especially timely opinions about dictators who would desire to invade England." The critic for The New Yorker wrote that the movie "...falls over backward in drawing the analogy between England's trial today and its crisis and ultimate triumph in the Napoleonic wars." In July 1941 the isolationist organisation America First Committee, who opposed the United States' entry in the war, recognised That Hamilton Woman, along with The Great Dictator (1940) and Foreign Correspondent (1940) as propaganda and urged American movie goers to boycott all three films.
Even isolationist politicians in Washington D.C. were unhappy with That Hamilton Woman, which they viewed as inciting the public to war. A Senate committee actually subpoenaed Alexander Korda to ask him questions about the film as well as his offices being used as a cover for British agents. The date of Mr. Korda's appearance before the Senate committee was December 12 1941. With the attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7 1941 Mr. Korda's testimony was cancelled. The United States was officially in the war.
That Hamilton Woman received positive reviews for the most part. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote, "Yet there is much in the picture which is exciting, and, for one with a taste for history, it is absorbing most of the way" and "...Vivien Leigh's entire performance as Lady Hamilton is delightful to behold." In Variety it was noted that "Miss Leigh hits the peaks with her delineation of Lady Hamilton, a vivacious girl who is pictured as a victim of men, but whose ingenuity in statecraft saves the Empire." While That Hamilton Woman was not a smash hit at the box office, it did moderately well, taking in $1,147,000 in North America. It did even better in the United Kingdom, where it was the fifth highest grossing film of 1941. As been noted many times before, That Hamilton Woman had a huge fan in Winston Churchill, who apparently counted it as one of his favourite films. Reportedly he watched the film over and over again.
That Hamilton Woman won the Oscar for Best Sound, Recording. It was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White and Best Effects, Special Effects.
Seen today That Hamilton Woman can be appreciated as a love story set against a historical backdrop. Its status as British wartime propaganda was obvious to those at the time it was released and will be obvious to those who know the history of the film's production, but probably will not so blatant to those who do not already know it was meant as propaganda. Vivien Leight's portrayal of Emma, Lady Hamilton numbers among her best performances. Quite simply she is magnetic on the screen. While Laurence Olivier has a much more limited role as Horatio Nelson, he still does quite well in the part. The film is also very sumptuous looking. Given the elaborateness of the sets and the costumes it is hard to believe that Alexander not only shot the film very quickly, but was working on a somewhat limited budget.
That Hamilton Woman is not as well known as some of Vivien Leigh's other films. It is certainly not as famous as Gone with the Wind or A Streetcar Named Desire. That having been said, it really should be. Not only does it occupy a space in the history of films made in the early days of World War II when the United States was officially neutral, it is also an finely made film with a great performance from Vivien Leigh and a the extravagant look of a true spectacle.