Anyone who doubts the acting ability and beauty of Vivien Leigh should watch “That Hamilton Woman,” a 1941 movie directed by Alexander Korda. Leigh plays Lady Emma Hamilton, a historical figure from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Lady Hamilton, considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, married the British ambassador to the kingdom of Naples and later had a scandalous love affair with British navel hero Horatio Nelson (played by Lawrence Olivier). The movie takes place during the Napoleonic wars, and has been cited as a propaganda film. The performances of Leigh and Olivier elevate the film to much greater achievements, while Korda’s direction and superb production design by Vincent Korda bring authenticity and style.
The movie begins in Calais, France, where a destitute Emma steals a bottle of wine before getting caught and hauled off to jail. She relates her story to a female cell mate, who listens incredulously. It all began for Emma at age 18, when she arrives in Naples to await her British lover. The breathtakingly gorgeous Leigh bursts onto the screen in total control of her character, giving us the true nature of the charming and beautiful Emma. She soon learns that her lover has ditched her, and decides to accept a marriage proposal from Lord Hamilton and live in his villa. When Olivier, as the handsome young Captain Nelson, arrives asking for troops to fight Napoleon, we can instantly see the amazing chemistry between the two historical figures.
Nelson goes off for 5 years to fight a war offscreen, while Emma dabbles in the social scene of Naples. When his ship returns to the Naples harbor, Emma boards it and receives a shock. The battle-weary Nelson has lost his arm and the sight in one eye. The couple’s bond becomes stronger, but Nelson soon departs to fight and defeat Napoleon’s navy in the Battle of the Nile. He returns to Naples with even more wounds, where Emma nurses him back to health. Nelson woos her under the nose of Lord Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), who seems more concerned with his art collection than the loss of Emma.
Since Korda tells the story from Emma’s point of view, the movie contains only 1 battle scene of the Battle of Trafalgar, where Nelson and his navy defeated a combined fleet of French and Spanish ships. Nelson died in that battle, giving Olivier a beautifully acted and moving scene on his flagship. Before this scene, the movie breaks out of the clever love story by showing Nelson giving speeches about fighting despotism. These prove far less successful and added much later in the story than the compelling romance between Nelson and Emma. Winston Churchill championed this film to get America involved in the war, but the effort became superfluous later in 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.