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.
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.
Emma Hart dines at the Hamilton Villa, Naples
Captain Nelson arrives in Naples
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!
Vivien Leigh version and real portrait of Emma Hart by George Romney
Emma, Lady Hamilton revels after the Ball in Nelson’s honor
Emma and Nelson celebrate in Naples after the Nile victory
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 (squeee) 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. Watch Lady Hamilton’s frocks and dos and you will get my drift. Much of the narrative unfolds in Naples and the clothes looked very Marie Antoinetteish. I do not know anything about Italian fashion at the turn of the nineteenth-century but one would think that like the British they were also influenced by French court dress emulating Empire fashions. Many of Lady Hamilton’s bonnets looked like they were borrowed from Gone with the Wind, and (her hair Louisa) definitely mimicked Scarlet O’Hara’s ringlets and a more modern 1940’s rolled crown affair a la Betty Grable.
Emma with non-Regency hairdo a la Betty Grable
Emma and Nelson, ill-fated lovers
Regardless of the fashion faux pas, 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.
Nelson at Trafalgar “England expects that every man will do his duty”
Nelson’s death: “Take care of poor Lady Hamilton”
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!
Portraits of Lord Nelson and Emma Hart
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.
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
- Visit That Hamilton Woman at The Critertion Collection website
- Biography and career of Vice Admiral, Lord Horatio Nelson
- Biography and career of Emma, Lady Hamilton nee Hart
- Review of That Hamilton Woman by film critic Molly Haskell
Favorite books on Emma and Nelson in my library