That Hamilton Woman

“That Hamilton Woman” is a 1941 classic in black and white which sheds light on the relationship between England’s Lord Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier) and Lady Emma Hamilton (Vivien Leigh). The two stars were married, newlyweds really, when the film was being made.


Laurence Olivier and Vivien LeighCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                                         Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier

The viewer knows from the start that the saga of Emma Hart ends unhappily as she is seen in jail recounting her life as Lady Hamilton to the prostitutes and alcoholic women who share the squalid quarters in her jail cell. The rest of the film is seen in flashback.

Emma Hart, a former dance hall performer and daughter of a blacksmith, met British Ambassador William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray) through his nephew Charles and unwittingly caused the man to fall in love with her. Hamilton offered to pay off Charles’ gambling debts if he would step aside so that the ambassador might court Emma himself. Without regret, Emma married the older man and regaled in her life at the Embassy where she was able to live lavishly.

Seven years passed before she was introduced to Naval Officer Horatio Nelson who arrived at the Embassy to decry the actions of Napoleon in his quest to rule the world. Lady Hamilton was impressed with the war hero and the attraction was returned in kind. Despite the fact that they were both married, they started their scandalous affair under the eyes of the Ambassador who initially feigned ignorance of the affair.

Nelson was busily engaged in a number of decisive naval victories for which he was lauded for his unconventional tactics. Still, the two continued their affair even as Nelson returned from battle, having lost one eye and his right arm. They lived openly together without the benefit of marriage and had one daughter, Horatia.


Sir Horatio NelsonCredit: Wikimedia Commons

                                                                        Sir Horatio Nelson

In spite of his personal life, Horatio Nelson was regarded as a national hero. He was knighted by King George III, was made a Baron, a Viscount, a Vice Admiral, and was known mostly as Lord Nelson.

His most famous battle, that of Trafalgar, occurred in 1805. Prior to the battle, Nelson signaled to his fleet his most famous saying: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” In spite of his decisive victory, Nelson was fatally injured that day and died a few hours later at the age of forty-seven.

Nelson’s wife received a pension for the rest of her life, although Emma Hamilton and their daughter Horatia received nothing in spite of Lord Nelson's last wishes. As seen in the last scenes of the film, Emma spent her final days in debtor’s prison.

“That Hamilton Woman” was nominated for an Academy Award in three categories: cinematography, art direction, and special effects; and won the Oscar for Best Sound. The film received some criticism for supposedly fostering propaganda for inferring a parallel between Britain’s struggle against the tyrant Napolean and the nation’s troubles with Hitler at that time.

That Hamilton Woman (The Criterion Collection)
Amazon Price: $39.95 $19.09 Buy Now
(price as of Mar 11, 2016)