That Hamilton Woman (1941) Movie: A Famous Romance Re-imagined – A Review

From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:

The romance of Emma, Lady Hamilton and Lord Horatio Nelson might just rival Romeo and Juliette or Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy as the greatest love story of all time. Moreover, their story is made all the more poignant because it is not a work of fiction created by a clever author pulling together bits of their own experience and idealized notions of the ultimate romance, but by actual well publicized and scandalous events of real people who made history during the Napoleonic age. And, quite remarkable people they were to boot; an infamously beguiling beauty and a brilliant naval hero both married to others, yet scandalously engaging in an ill-fated love affair that shaped history.

Vivien Leigh’s Incandescent Beauty, Vivacity, and Alluring Charm

My first introduction to Emma and Horatio’s ill-fated romance was in the 1941 movie That Hamilton Woman staring the stunningly beautiful Vivien Leigh and the dashingly handsome Laurence Olivier. As a young girl my mother’s excitement over any Vivien Leigh movies quickly influenced my admiration of her acting talent and consuming presence on screen. She graces some of my favorite classic romantic films from the movies Golden Age: Gone with the Wind, Waterloo Bridge and That Hamilton Woman. 1941 saw Leigh at the height of her beauty and popularity after winning the Oscar in 1939 for Gone with the Wind. During her troubled life she made less than twenty films in her career, but like Emma Hamilton, she will be remembered for her incandescent beauty, vivacity and alluring charm. Interestingly, Vivien is related to Jane Austen through Jane’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh.

Leigh and Olivier’s Scandalous Affair Mirrors Hamilton and Nelson’s

That Hamilton Woman was made at the request of Prime Minister Winston Churchill to stir British sympathy and patriotism during the height of the Second World War. The paring of Leigh and Olivier by producer/director Alexander Korda was brilliant. At the time of filming, Leigh and her co-star and real life inamorata Laurence Olivier were having their own scandalous affair to mirror Emma and Nelson. You can see all the real-life sparks ignite on film. The usually staid Larry Olivier is more passionate for his Viv as Lady Hamilton than I can ever recall on screen, far surpassing his other portrayals of famous romantic icons such as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (too fey) and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (too blasé). I am sure that historians could have a heyday ripping apart the accuracy of the screenplay, but this is a filmatic re-imagining of historical romance at its finest, and I love it!

Fashion Faux Pas

The great news for That Hamilton Woman is that it has just been re-released on DVD for the first time by The Criterion Collection and includes great extras and a restored high-definition digital transfer (though sadly not re-mastered and contains some nasty occasional film scratches). On viewing it again, I was as enchanted by the performances as memory served but amused by the historical inaccuracy of the costumes by designer René Hubert and hair styles (uncredited) which range from late eighteenth-century to mid Victorian to 1940’s. This is typical of Hollywood movies from the era.

A Stellar Cast and Production Team

Larry and Viv just sparkle, the supporting cast is stellar, the direction by Alexander Korda is effectively melodramatic, the art direction conjured up on a shoestring by Vincent Korda is stunning, and the sweeping music by Miklós Rózsa soothes over all the production flaws like a cup of tea on a cold day. Be sure to watch the extra features including a video interview with author and editor Michael Korda, Alexander’s nephew, who has a few plum antecedents about filming of the movie including his uncle not knowing which arm Nelson had lost in battle and a matter-of-fact mention of Olivier’s affair with actor Danny Kaye.

Life Imitating Art Imitating Life

Art director Vincent Korda drew inspiration from the past by using original portraits of the famous couple, Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton nee Hart, and recreating the pose in a production still and a oil painting. Note that the painter who created the portrait of Leigh as Hart used  blue and pink colors because they photograph better in a black and white film.  

Pop this one in the ole DVD player and settle back for a two hankie cry-a-thon. This story is just screaming to be remade by the BBC if they ever venture back into bonnets and breaches again. Who can resist a scandalous love affair and Royal Naval officer in full regalia? Not me!

Rule, Britannia!

5 out of 5 Stars

2022 UPDATE: This classic movie is available to stream through the Criterion Collection, Amazon Prime Video, and HBO Max


SYNOPSIS

One of cinema’s most dashing duos, real-life spouses Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier live their greatest on-screen romance in this visually dazzling tragic love story from legendary producer-director Alexander Korda. Set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars of the late eighteenth century, That Hamilton Woman is a gripping account of the scandalous adulterous affair between the British Royal Navy officer Lord Horatio Nelson and the renowned beauty Emma, Lady Hamilton, the wife of a British ambassador. With its grandly designed sea battles and formidable star performances, That Hamilton Woman (Winston Churchill’s favorite movie, which he claimed to have seen over eighty times) brings history to vivid, glamorous life.


CAST

  • Emma, Lady Hamilton – Vivien Leigh
  • Lord Horatio Nelson – Laurence Olivier
  • Sir William Hamilton – Alan Mowbray
  • Mrs. Cadogan-Lyon – Sara Allgood
  • Lady Frances Nelson – Gladys Cooper
  • Captain Hardy – Henry Wilcoxon
  • Rev. Nelson Halliwell Hobbes

DVD INFORMATION

  • That Hamilton Woman (1941)
  • Directed by, Alexander Korda
  • Criterion Collection (September 8, 2009)
  • DVD  (2 hours and 8 minutes)
  • Black and white
  • Aspect Ratio‏ : ‎ 1.33:1

ADDITIONAL INFO | CRITERION COLLECTION

Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Images are from the original 1941 production. The DVD cover is courtesy of Criterion Collection © 2009.

17 thoughts on “That Hamilton Woman (1941) Movie: A Famous Romance Re-imagined – A Review

Add yours

  1. If you like the story of Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson, I higly recommend “The Volcano Lover” by Susan Sontag. It’s a post modern work of fiction based on this love story, very interesting.

    I’ve recently watched the film and it’s stunning, even with the inaccuracies you’ve rightly pointed out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I saw this film on television a couple of months ago and was also struck by the historical liberties taken in both fashion and fact. However, it was interesting to see Oliver and Leigh together, so romantic.

    There was a remake of sorts in 1973 with Peter Finch as Nelson and Glenda Jackson as Emma Hamilton, called “Bequest to the Nation” (or “the Nelson Affair” in some countries) based on Terence Rattigan’s play which was in turn based on E. Barrington’s novel. Finch was terrific, as was Glenda Jackson. The drama revolves around their meetngs in Bath and London around the time of the battle of Trafalgar. I recall an interview with Glenda Jackson where she said the biggest challenge was for wardrobe to try and make her skinny frame as voluptuous as the orginal Emma Hamilton, and they had to apply various igenious ruses to manufacture a cleavage for her. In this version, Emma is portrayed as a more sluttish, slovenly character which reflects her reputation of the times.

    In 2005 BBC Radio did a version of the original play with Branagh, and McTeer in the leads and Amanda Root playing Nelson’s wife.

    Seems niether version are available to view/listen to. Shame…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing Joan. I would love to see the Finch Jackson version at some point. Hope they pull it out of the vault. Sorry to have missed the radio play. Amanda Root as Lady nelson seems off. I just can’t picture her as a stick in the mud. Maybe they will re-do that also! I can never have too much Emma and Nelson!

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  3. Nelson was kind of a sh*t but I have to admit when, at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, I stood in front of the bloody, shot-up uniform he was wearing when he was fatally shot, I cried.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Frankly, my dear, it has never occurred to me to watch this movie, but now I feel I must. I never knew that Vivian Leigh was related to Austen–so that wasn’t a stage name! I thought Vivian Leigh was perfect as Scarlett O’Hara and quite good as Blanche duBois, but those are the only roles I’ve seen her in. This will be fun to watch now that I have some background on what to look for.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I pray one day they will remake this movie. Not that the Olivier/Leigh version is bad- it is my total favorite. I would love to see a more indepth story of the romance that the censors may have put a stop to in the 1941 movie. If you ever can try to get the Letters of Lord Nelson to Lady Emma Hamilton. I really have enjoyed reading the letters. He was so romantic. This movie has to be remade some day!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Becki, I would be over the moon with joy if this movie was made into a mini-series or feature movie. Thanks for the rec on Lord Nelson’s letters to Lady Hamilton. I will check that out. Thanks for visiting. LA

      Like

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