Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

That Hamilton Woman


You tend to think that, in wartime, in 1941 England during the Blitz, the war was all that was going on, and everyone and everything was devoted to wartime production. Not true. As in Hollywood a year later, the motion picture industry was busy with propaganda films and, of course, their regular production as well. It was a matter of morale, if nothing else.

This is clearly propaganda, with Napoleon standing in for Hitler. It is said that it was Churchill’s favorite movie. (No surprise; Churchill himself wrote two of Lord Nelson’s patriotic speeches!) I can see that the movie would have been a morale builder. I’m only an amateur historian, but if I had to name the greatest Britons of all time, I’d mention Elizabeth I, Churchill, and Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson. (And maybe John Lennon.) I think all Brits would agree that Nelson belongs on that list. In fact, he is almost deified over there. If you need a tale of his heroism, consider the fact that England’s greatest sailor suffered from seasickness all his life!

During his life the only flaw in his god-like reputation was one Lady Emma Hamilton. She was one of the greatest beauties who ever lived, who brought herself up literally from the streets to marriage with Lord Hamilton, who was the Ambassador to Naples at the time. He was much older than her.

The story of Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton was the great scandal of the day, and a terribly tragic tale. They were deeply in love, both trapped in loveless marriages. Divorce was really out of the question, I guess, though I’m not sure why. Would the public really have turned against the Hero of the Nile, the destroyer of the Danish fleet? Maybe. As it was, Nelson, Lady Nelson, and Lady Hamilton lived together for some years. No one knows just how the sexual arrangements were worked out, but Hamilton bore his daughter. Maybe no one was happy, but they seemed to have gotten along. And then Nelson went off to his greatest victory at Trafalgar, where he died.

This movie seems reasonably accurate, historically, from what I have read. I’m sure many details were changed (Lady Hamilton got fat as she grew older, and Vivien Leigh doesn’t), but a surprising number of them are correct. Surely the basic thrust of the story is right. She did end her life in debtor’s prison, alcoholic, ridden with dysentery.

Most of all this is a love story. Nelson pops up, and we learn that he’s just been victorious at the Battle of the Nile. Whoa, I missed that! He shows up minus his right arm and right eye. Jeez, when did that happen? But it was the right way to go, because this really is Vivien Leigh’s show. She outshines her illustrious husband, Laurence Olivier, here. The fireworks are saved for the very last, at Trafalgar, which is eye-popping in its scale. You can’t help but wonder what it would look like with today’s CGI ships (and I’d pay money to see that), but working with large, intricately-crafted models, the producers were able to produce battle scenes that are still stirring to this day. Nelson’s death has been immortalized in dozens if not hundreds of paintings, and I get the impression that some of them were recreated here, but I haven’t been able to confirm that. No, wait! I just found one that is exactly like what I saw in the movie. Ain’t the Internet wonderful?