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DVD Review: That Hamilton Woman

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Alexander Korda’s 1941 film, That Hamilton Woman is a romance of epic proportions, yet it started out as a piece of propaganda for the war effort. Before Pearl Harbor, Great Britain stood alone against Germany, and things were not going well. When Korda moved his family to California, Winston Churchill asked him for a film that might nudge the US into the conflict.

The result was That Hamilton Woman, a masterpiece made under extraordinary pressures of both time and finance. The story begins on skid row, where a woman (Vivian Leigh) is being arrested for stealing a jug of wine. Inside the jail, Emma, as we come to know her, begins to tell her story to a disbelieving prostitute.

Many years prior, she had traveled to Naples, Italy with her mother, to meet the uncle of her fiancé. The uncle, Sir William Hamilton just happened to be the British ambassador to Italy. The trip was a ruse, as the ambassador had paid his nephew's debts in order to meet Emma. She was hurt at first, but adapted and wound up marrying the much older man a couple of years later.

Then one day Captain Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier) arrived, seeking troops to help him in his battle against Napoleon. It was love at first sight between the (married) Captain and Mrs. Hamilton.

Their doomed love affair plays out against the ongoing struggle between England and France. Or more specifically, between Napoleon and Nelson. Napoleon’s aggression is clearly meant to represent that of Adolf Hitler.

Nelson’s victories in these battles make him a national hero. The affair is an open secret, but there is little the Navy can do, as he is so popular. Nelson is eventually given the title of Lord, fathers Emma’s illegitimate child, and leaves his wife to live with her and her mother. It is a brief time of bliss for the couple, as Napoleon has rebuilt his fleet and is on his way to England.

History records the outcome of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson’s ships destroy Bonaparte’s, yet he pays the ultimate price with a bullet in the heart.

This final battle at sea is remarkably well done, especially considering the constraints the production was under. They had but five weeks to shoot the entire picture, and money was incredibly tight. So bad in fact, that they only used make-up on the side of Vivien Leigh’s face that was being shot.

Much has been made of the way art imitated life in the case of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. Although the couple had recently wed at the time of filming, both were married to other people when they first met. Like Emma and Horatio’s, their affair was a very public one.

The extras included on this DVD include a rare, 15-minute radio broadcast from the set to promote the film, titled Alexander Korda Presents. There is also a 35-minute interview conducted in April 2009 with Michael Korda, Alexander’s nephew. His insights into the filming of That Hamilton Woman are somewhat interesting, although he was only eight years old at the time.

The original British trailer for Lady Hamilton (as it was titled there) is included as well. The booklet contains some nice stills, and I particularly enjoyed the essay by film critic Molly Haskell in it.

That Hamilton Woman is a riveting historical and romantic tale, with outstanding performances by Leigh and Olivier. The supporting cast are all in top form as well. The subjects of love and betrayal, war and peace are timeless, and for those reasons alone, this is a DVD worth seeing.

Winston Churchill certainly thought so. He claimed to have seen the picture over 80 times.

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