In the HBO/BBC co-production Into the Storm, a visibly moved Winston Churchill (played, in an Emmy-winning performance, by Brendan Gleeson) screens his favorite movie, That Hamilton Woman (1941), for guests. Churchill is said to have a hand in its production, whose intent was to rally an isolationist America to Britain’s side as World War II ravaged Europe. It’s also beloved by the venerable film critic Andrew Sarris, who claims to have seen it 80 times. And it earned a spot in Danny Peary’s outstanding three-book overview, Cult Movies. So what’s special about That Hamilton Woman?
A typically fine Criterion Collection disc gives a few answers—though the booklet essay by Molly Haskell is silent on her husband, Sarris’, affection for the picture. It’s unabashed propaganda, so much so that only Pearl Harbor and America’s entrance into the war spared producer/director Alexander Korda from a Senate subcommittee investigating the interventionist influences that were attempting to sway public opinion. That New York audiences cheered its anti-appeasement and pro-war sentiments, allegedly penned by the prime minister himself, made a strong case for the government. But the film is leavened by a classic romance, actually two—the one onscreen, between the dashing Admiral Lord Nelson and the irresistible Lady Emma Hamilton, and the one off, between stars Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Both were steeped in adultery, though the movie, mindful of Hollywood censorship, minimizes the facts of the historical affair—Hamilton’s extravagantly checkered past has been tidied up, and the inconvenient truth of their out-of-wedlock daughter ignored.
Having married in 1940, Olivier and Leigh were off the hook, but just barely, as audiences knew. Romantically involved since Korda paired them in his earlier Fire Over England (1937), the two became major movie stars in 1939, Olivier in Wuthering Heights and Leigh in…well, do I have to say? (Look for it on Blu-ray in November.) That Hamilton Woman, their third and last collaboration onscreen, was a honeymoon project for them. Leigh shimmers as the coquettish Lady Hamilton, whose love for Olivier’s heroic Nelson knows no bounds till England obliges him to go once more unto the breach and lead the fateful Battle of Trafalgar against the threatening French and Spanish fleets. Co-scripted by R.C. Sherriff, whose great World War I play Journey’s End received a thrilling Tony-winning revival in 2007, the movie takes evasive action to make their love comprehensible under censorious circumstances, with Nelson’s wife, played by Gladys Cooper, portrayed as unreasonably as possible. (On the other hand, Hamilton’s elderly husband, the subject of Susan Sontag’s novel The Volcano Lover, was as tolerant and as patient as played by Alan Mowbray.) But they burn through the smokescreen with newlywed passion that animates the message-mindedness of the rest of it. A stillborn Shanghai Surprise, with the just-married Madonna and Sean Penn already going through the motions, this is not.
Commentator Ian Christie does a good job separating fact from fiction during the film, concluding his talk by reading from a first-hand account of one of Churchill’s viewings. Besides the two stars he focuses on Korda, whose London Films modernized the quaint British film industry (notable credits included 1936’s sci-fi epic Things to Come, the rousing 1940 version of The Thief of Bagdad, and the 1949 classic The Third Man). That Hamilton Woman was shot in Hollywood, on a tight six-week schedule maximized by the supple production design of his brother, Vincent, which cleverly evokes 18th century Naples and other European locales. In a video interview Vincent’s son, book editor Michael Korda (the author of the excellent memoir Charmed Lives), recalls that his father thought that he and Alexander were doing a Wellington picture and had to work quickly to redesign the mistake. Michael, who was seven when the film was shot, says he enjoyed playing in the dinghy-sized miniatures used for the sea battles, second only to the rubber pythons made for Korda’s later adaptation of The Jungle Book. He also dishes the stars, whose 20-year marriage soured early on. But for That Hamilton Woman, they blazed.
Buy That Hamilton Woman (Criterion Collection) at Amazon on standard DVD. For more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.