Released in early 1941 during the time when England was at its most beleaguered, THAT HAMILTON WOMAN is reputed to have been Prime Minister Winston Churchill's favorite film, which, if true, is prima-facie evidence that he was an old softie at heart.
A frothy historical romance as only Hollywood could create, the film is broadly faithful to the facts. Low-born Emma Hart (Vivien Leigh), the courtesan lover of the English aristocrat Charles Greville, is shipped off in 1786 to Naples to be, unbeknownst to her, the mistress of Greville's uncle, England's envoy to the Kingdom of Naples, Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray). But, William is so smitten by Emma's beauty as to marry her, and the latter becomes Lady Emma Hamilton in 1791. In that capacity, she first meets Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier) in 1793, when he anchors his ship in Naples to officially seek the kingdom's help in providing reinforcements against the French. They don't meet again until five years later, after Nelson's famous victory in the Battle of the Nile, by which time he's lost an arm and his health. The latter is restored to the Admiral while under the Hamiltons' roof and Emma's care, during which time Nelson and his nurse fall in love. The rest is history. The Hamiltons and the Admiral returned to England where, in 1801, all three - or four, if you count Horatia, Nelson's daughter by Emma - moved into a house near present day Wimbledon purchased by Horatio after spurning his legal wife, Frances. William Hamilton died in 1803. Nelson died a national hero at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Ignored by the British government, Emma became destitute and died an alcoholic in Calais in 1815. Indeed, it's in Calais that THAT HAMILTON WOMAN opens and closes; Emma tells her story in flashback form to a fellow prison inmate (Heather Angel) after being arrested for public disorderliness.
THAT HAMILTON WOMAN is perhaps typical of the genre of the time. It's a good film, not great. The chief reason to watch is to discern its appeal to Churchill, who obviously found inspiration and a kindred spirit in the Tinseltown Nelson, whose impassioned speeches against the continental tyrant (Napoleon) and the need for his country to fight the dictator even if England stood alone reflected Winston's own feelings about the battle against Hitler and Nazi Germany in the months before Pearl Harbor and America's entry into the war, the salvation so desperately sought by the PM.
From an historical point of view, the serious or casual student of the Trafalgar naval confrontation between the British and Franco-Spanish fleets will likely find fault. The battle scenes, using ship models, show vessels blowing up in great cataclysms of fire and smoke, and one actually capsizes. Trafalgar wasn't like that. Tactics dictated that opposing battleships maneuver up close and personal and fire withering volleys of hard, non-explosive shot at each other at point blank range to take down masts, reduce the decks (above the waterline) to kindling, and kill as many opposing sailors as possible. Only then would a ship surrender and be taken and converted to prize-money by the victorious captain and crew. To this end, actual sinking of an opponent was counterproductive. For a better understanding of Trafalgar and naval tactics of the period, I recommend Adam Nicolson's excellent book, Seize the Fire : Heroism, Duty, and the Battle of Trafalgar.
Any Vivien Leigh fan will find much to like in THAT HAMILTON WOMAN though, since GONE WITH THE WIND had been released only a couple of years prior, I kept half-expecting Leigh's character to break into a southern accent and pine for Tara. I especially liked the melodramatic ending when, after Captain Hardy (Henry Wilcoxon) rides his gallant steed off-camera after breaking the news of Nelson's death to Emma, the latter shuts the drapes across a massive window and collapses in a faint - a nice allusion to "the final curtain" closing on an epic love story. How "Hollywood" can you get?
Since this DVD was produced by Buddha Video in Taiwan, there's the unusual (to American audiences) availability of Chinese subtitles. Turn them "on" to view with Chinese take-out.