Is That Hamilton Woman, starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier at their most heart-stoppingly beautiful and mutually enraptured, one of the most romantic movies ever made because or in spite of the fact that it was designed as propaganda? It was 1940, Britain was in peril. Hoping to enlist the Americans in the fight against Hitler, the producer-director Alexander Korda hatched this project, originally called The Enchantress, in which Lord Nelson, aided by his illicit inamorata, Lady Hamilton, would victoriously attack Napoleon’s navy in the Bay of Naples, before going on to his triumph, and death, at Trafalgar. And who better to play the adulterous pair, or boost the British image in its hour of need, than the glamorously illicit couple of Leigh and Olivier?
Cables went back and forth between London and Hollywood, where, with the finalities of their respective divorces just coming through, the about to be Mr. and Mrs. Olivier were in temporary quarters. Korda had them both under contract, and Leigh, a huge star now after Gone with the Wind, owed him a picture. Korda offered them bonuses, as well as the opportunity to recoup some of the luster their recent disastrous stage production of Romeo and Juliet had cost them. The urgency of the war situation and the small budget meant the production had to be done quickly, and so it was, in an astonishing five weeks. Somehow, though, the speed and patriotic fervor with which the movie was made worked in its favor. Perhaps the sense of a higher cause—whether England’s or Cupid’s—called forth the expression of finer emotions and the subordination of star egos on what everyone later described as an unusually harmonious set. Churchill would claim it as his favorite movie.
Not coincidentally, of course, the adulterous passion that develops between the lovers in the film mimicked the scandalous one that had united Leigh and Olivier before the sometimes disapproving, more often infatuated, eyes of the world. Their real-life love (if such a theatrical passion can ever be designated “real life”) would exercise its own self-reflexive charm over the movie. Indeed, it’s difficult to separate the “real Olivier” and the “real Leigh” from their parts here—and the parts that had made them who they now were: he the more conservative and guilt-ridden son of a parson, she the reckless flibbertigibbet who nevertheless had a shrewd eye for power and manipulation. Each had first been smitten watching the other on the stage—the theater would be central to their mutually idealizing visions of each other—but their affair had begun on the set of Fire over England (1937), another Korda project and the first of only three films they made together, and continued blithely and passionately in front of everyone, including their remarkably compliant spouses. Through some twenty years of marriage, they would be busy burnishing the myth of their love for the public even after feelings had grown cool and the relationship thorny. But now it was 1940, the height of their love-struck radiance.
In addition to landing Leigh and Olivier, Korda was also able to pull together a stellar supporting cast and crew from the Hollywood European colony. The original screenplay would be by Walter Reisch (The Great Waltz and Ninotchka, later Gaslight and Niagara) and R. C. Sherriff (Journey’s End, play and adaptations; The Four Feathers and Goodbye, Mr. Chips), and the film would feature such stalwart British players as Sara Allgood (mother of Emma, Lady Hamilton), Gladys Cooper as Lady Frances Nelson, and Alan Mowbray as the British ambassador in Naples, an aesthete and collector for whom Emma becomes the prize objet d’art. Money was so short for the project that makeup was applied only to the half of Lady Hamilton’s face exposed to the camera. Whether in profile or full face, Leigh looked so beautiful in Rudolph Maté’s black-and-white cinematography that no one even missed her Technicolor green eyes, and Miklós Rósza’s score completed the effect. One of the greatest feats on this shoestring budget would be the principal set—Lord Hamilton’s majestic castle, pitched over the sea of Naples—courtesy of Korda’s brilliant brother Vincent. The production designer was considered the real artist in the Hungarian sibling triumvirate (also including screenwriter-producer-director Zoltán), and his ingeniously spacious Neapolitan castle, opening onto vistas without and vast chambers within, contrasted dramatically with the chillingly gray wartime Britain where Nelson’s journey concludes.
Olivier, according to Alexander Walker’s biography of Leigh, would have liked to explore some of the darker aspects of Nelson’s ambition, but wartime exigencies required a hero as unassailable as the icon in Trafalgar Square. Leigh, as the prostitute turned lady turned derelict, could give full rein to the mercurial temperament and star glamour she’d acquired, but Olivier would be straitjacketed—not just by the stiff, weight-of-the-world gravity of a military man, but by the physical handicaps of injuries: the eye patch and missing arm. And yet these constraints, too, worked their own kind of magic. His voice, now the major instrument of his performance, has never been sexier or more thrilling, and the stiff-upper-lip diffidence and unworldly reserve play in musical counterpoint to Leigh’s incandescent, even manic, volatility. The charge between them is electric. Yes, they’re madly in love, but so have other movie couples been, to less dazzling effect. (And, conversely, plenty of partners who disliked each other have exuded chemistry.) You feel their love as divinely ordered, inevitable—that if they’d lived at opposite ends of the earth, they’d somehow have found each other.
We first see Emma from the back, a hunched-over pauper lurching through the fogbound streets of Calais in search of a drink. In a deep, gravelly, gin-soaked voice, unrecognizable at first, and in perfect French, she asks a barkeep the price of cider, then refuses it as too expensive. She gets into a brawl with some soldiers and winds up facedown on the pavement. Moments later, in a jail cell shared with a friendly prostitute, she gives her name as Emma, Lady Hamilton, to her cohort’s roar of disbelief. She remembers hearing of the great beauty and begs for what she can only assume is a made-up story, while Emma, murmuring wonderingly, barely believes it herself. Her face surrounded by a nimbus of wild hair, a bedraggled shadow of former beauty, she begins her tale. There’s an eerie sadness when she asks for a mirror, looks into it, and remembers the “face I knew before.” It’s as if Leigh herself is looking not backward but forward, to Blanche DuBois and those other lost women, ravaged belles, down on luck and dignity, who await her.
Flashback to a portrait of the young Emma (by Joshua Reynolds), the dance-hall girl and courtesan from Liverpool whose image has been given pride of place in the ambassadorial mansion of Sir William Hamilton. This is the “ideal,” says the French ambassador, awed by the picture, as Hamilton elaborates on the charms of the “country” girl who’s gone down and down to triumph, who did the dance of the seven veils, “the fewer the veils, the greater the success.” When the Frenchman expresses distaste at such an unsavory life, the collector shows him a statue that has passed through many hands and emerged as glorious as ever, reminding him that certain objects may descend into the mud but remain beautiful. The paradox is the key not just to Emma’s but to Vivien Leigh’s appeal, the sinner forgiven, the slut miraculously unsullied by the most sordid circumstances.
Emma now arrives with her mother, having been dispatched (temporarily, she thinks) by her lover, Charles, to the grandly situated uncle whose presumed task it is to polish the young lady and ready her for marriage. In fact, inspired by Reynolds’s version of the fetching beauty, Hamilton has paid off his nephew’s debts and, in effect, bought this gem to reign over his possessions. When the older man apprises Emma of the betrayal, she expresses shock and disbelief, but in the best fiddle-de-dee manner quickly adapts to the practice of social climbing. No Eliza Doolittle, she: well-spoken to begin with (Leigh wasn’t much on lower-class accents, and sounds more like a Kensington deb than a Liverpudlian demimondaine; Korda’s one criticism, according to Walker, was that she wasn’t vulgar, to which Leigh replied, “My dear Alex, you wouldn’t have given me a contract if I’d been vulgar”), she quickly masters several languages and all the arts necessary to not only preside over the ambassadorial mansion but become its legitimate mistress.
Korda was comfortable with period luxe, and as a Hungarian émigré managed to combine, in equal parts, the outsider’s delight in royal goings-on with a distinct lack of awe. This wasn’t to be a sardonic, warts-and-all portrait of the kind Korda had made with Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), or to feature the earthy verismo of the same team’s Rembrandt (1936); it was a love story about the conflict between love and honor. Nevertheless, there would still be room for ironies and provocations. The life of luxury is portrayed in gliding lateral movements that have an almost Ophulsian elegance, but without that director’s poignant sense of time rushing all before it, of foreboding and loss. Asking us to believe in the glorious fantasy of eternal love, That Hamilton Woman (or Lady Hamilton, as it was called in England) creates a world in which finally only the two lovers exist, and the support system so crucial to the Ophulsian world simply fades away.
Nelson first appears on Emma’s doorstep with his ragged navy in tow and desperate for reinforcements. When his pleas are met by the stodgy ambassador with protocol and delays, the wily Emma, taken with the seriousness of the new arrival, simply goes to the Neapolitan queen, her friend, and troops are forthcoming. If Hamilton’s reluctance is a dig at the unengaged, by-the-book Americans, there are jibes in store for those even more perfidious European “friends” the “lazy” Italians. And for pure Anglocentrism, there is nothing so absurdly charming as the geography lesson Hamilton gives his frivolous but now chastened wife. Much like Scarlett O’Hara in her complaints that war, war, war is ruining her social life, Emma has been fuming that the French ambassador’s absence will ruin her dinner party. But realizing from her brush with Nelson the gravity of the situation, she begs her husband to instruct her. Hence the scene in which he leads her to a giant globe to show her all those pesky countries out to get precious England. Immediately before this, Emma has done a spontaneous dance of seduction, hoping to persuade Nelson to stay for dinner. Nelson, struck with wonder, gazes at this little performance as if he’s never seen such a thing, hardly knows what to make of it. One can’t help but think of the remarkable description Olivier gives in his autobiography of his first sight of Leigh—on the stage (in The Mask of Virtue), of course. “Apart from her looks, which were magical, she possessed beautiful poise; her neck looked almost too fragile to support her head and bore it with a sense of surprise, and something of the pride of the master juggler who can make a brilliant maneuver appear almost accidental. She also had something else: an attraction of the most perturbing nature I had ever encountered. It may have been the strangely touching spark of dignity in her that enslaved the ardent legion of her admirers.”
And she had first seen him on the stage too, and courted him as shamelessly as Scarlett pursued Ashley, caring as little about the opinion of the world. Enabled by the admiration they excited in others, they saw themselves as royalty. (Olivier: “This thing was as fatefully irresistible for us as for any couple from Siegmund and Sieglinde to Windsor and Simpson. It sometimes felt almost like an illness, but the remedy was unthinkable; only an early Christian martyr could have faced it.”) One of the film’s most memorable scenes has them skipping out on a post-opera banquet in Nelson’s honor, to a tavern where Emma mimics the queen, the king, the ambassador, and Lord Nelson in all his moods, bad, good, and exuberant (a gloomy frown), and he declares, in the third person, his love for her.
No less sublime is the later scene in which she rushes headlong across the terrace to meet him, and they realize they cannot be parted from each other. The secondary characters stand and serve, or wait importantly, most especially Gladys Cooper as Lady Frances Nelson, so striking in the scene where she and Leigh meet, take each other’s measure, and remain resolute. Or Henry Wilcoxon as Captain Hardy, the second in command, who gently tends his dying master (“Kiss me, Hardy”).
And nothing can equal Leigh’s reading of the final lines. Having lost her lover, her home, her England, she is asked by the prostitute, “What happened then?” To which she replies, “There is no then . . . There is no after.”
One of cinema’s most haunting endings speaks to the idea that the Great Love’s utter insulation from the rest of the world is its majesty and tragedy. Where, suddenly, are the other characters? The daughter of Emma and Nelson? The mother? Nelson’s son? Of no more importance in the Great Love narrative than insects on the ground. Yet the completeness of the beautiful couple, being all to each other, unanchored to reality, is the greatest fantasy of all. Olivier hints at this in a shocking description of his and Leigh’s return to England on a “delightful” French freighter, which proved a disaster. It was 1950, the first flush of love was behind them, but they were still the great, exciting couple in the eyes of the world. There were wild parties to come, manic all-nighters after the two Cleopatras on the London stage, but here they were, stuck in the middle of the sea, bored to death in each other’s company, and plunged into depression. “For the first time,” he wrote, “the idea of suicide had its attractions, and I found myself more and more drawn to the ship’s rail and the fascination of the foam sweeping by. We had never before been made to face the extent to which our lives together had been supported and bolstered up by the companionship of our friends and the glitter of our position.”
So however brief and self-mythologizing their love, let us celebrate That Hamilton Woman as its definitive memorial. The film encapsulates the eternal yearning, theirs and ours, for a romantic illusion, the preferred “truth” as created by art and given its most powerful popular form in classical Hollywood cinema. To paraphrase another great movie, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when everyday truth conflicts with legend, print the legend!
Author and critic Molly Haskell was a longtime staff writer for the Village Voice, New York, and Vogue. She has also written extensively for the New York Times and such publications as Esquire, the Nation, the Guardian, and the New York Review of Books. Her book Frankly, My Dear: “Gone with the Wind” Revisited is available from Yale University Press.