Motion History is officially one month and one week old, and hopefully no one has gotten too bored along the way. The experience of writing it has been pretty overwhelming. There's so many films to pick from that I'm actually getting bogged down in indecision, and I constantly worry about treading on old ground. I have to keep reminding myself not everyone knows "the true story", even if the film boasts a Criterion Collection release, and a fandom that included Winston Churchill.

As I just had the pleasure of watching That Hamilton Woman for the first time this week, I thought I'd use it as a Motion History topic. It's a rare example of a film that didn't invent a fluffy, bodice-ripper of a love story for its historical hero, but I suspect there's many a moviegoer who thinks that it did. Even if it is well-known history to a lot of readers, That Hamilton Woman may not be a film that's in current rotation on many DVD players, or on many young filmgoers' radars. After all, if you can barely convince people Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is worth watching, how many people are willing to watch a black and white version that lacks all of its swash, buckle, and blood?

Perhaps I'm protesting my pick too much. In the end, the temptation to write about Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson was too great. He's one of my favorite historical figures, and while I went to the United Kingdom on the trail of William Wallace (who will definitely figure in this column at some point), I ended up bumping into Nelson instead. Even my nights were spent contemplating his visage, as my closest wireless connection was at the Lord Nelson pub in Canary Wharf. By the time I finally made it to St. Paul's to see his tomb, and Portsmouth to see the HMS Victory, it felt like we were old friends.

And you know what? If his eerily lifelike figure at Westminster Abbey is to be believed, he looked an awful lot like Laurence Olivier ....

The Film

The film begins with a penniless, decrepit figure of a woman (Vivien Leigh) trying to steal wine in Calais before being dumped in debtor's prison. She claims to be Lady Emma Hamilton, and when pressed by her fellow prisoners, tells of her glorious, romantic past. As a young woman, she was Emma Hart, the mistress of Charles Francis Greville. He ships her off to Naples with vague instructions to be educated by Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador to Naples. But Greville has tired of her, and owes a debt to Hamilton, and thinks giving him a new and pretty mistress will satisfy it. Emma is crushed, but she rallies, and marries Hamilton. She becomes a social force in Naples, and an intimate friend of the King and Queen. When young Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier) arrives, desperate for troops, Emma uses her charm and influence to help him. They fall in love, despite being married to other people, and their public affair causes shock throughout England even as Nelson becomes its greatest naval hero. Despite that his last words are of Emma, she winds up cast out of society.

The Historical Background

France and England were at war from 1793 to 1802, a period known as the French Revolutionary Wars, and then again from 1803 to 1815 when Napoleon seized power and declared war on all of Europe. These wars were long, complicated, and corpse-strewn as Napoleon flung troops at everyone. France had the best army in the world, and continental Europe felt the result. France, Belgium, Poland, Russia, Austria, Prussia, and all the people in between experienced a level of destruction they'd never experienced before -- and wouldn't again until the mechanized warfare of WWI.

Napoleon's fatal mistake (besides invading Russia) was trying to invade Britain. France may have had the best army, but England had the best navy, and it was a war between giants. Nevertheless, there was real fear in England that Napoleon would invade. There's tons and tons of propaganda warning the British that if England fell, there would be guillotines in London. England seems so indomitable throughout history that it's difficult to imagine they were ever afraid, but they are a small island, and invasion seems like a distinct possibility no matter how many eyes you put on the coasts. Even today, if you venture towards Portsmouth, you can see where the beacons were set to warn against French or Spanish ships. (I imagine they had quite an effect on J.R.R. Tolkien's imagination.)

Is It Accurate?

Yes! Surprisingly so! The one major flaw is the costumes, as they're some kind of hybrid between Gone With the Wind and the slinky styles of 1940s evening gowns. The sets are also far too fancy in that classic soundstage way.

But the whole story is true. Emma was born Amy Lyon, and had a rather sketchy life from an early age. At 12, she was working as a maid before deciding to pursue the stage -- a profession that was seen as no better than prostitution at the time. She worked as a maid to actresses performing at the Drury Lane theater, and then worked as a model and a dancer at a dubious medical establishment known variously as "Goddess of Health" or "Temple of Health."

At the tender age of fifteen, she became involved with Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh, who had hired her as a dancer and entertainer for a stag party. She reportedly danced naked on his dining room table, and he was sufficiently impressed enough to take her as his mistress. She became pregnant, and Sir Harry was furious enough to break off the affair. She took up with the Honourable Charles Greville, the second son of the Earl of Warwick,and at his insistence, changed her name to Emma Hart. She gave birth to a daughter, Emma Carew, who was raised by an anonymous couple. Emma truly believed Greville would marry her. He loved her, and commissioned breathtaking portraits of her. She became a favorite model of George Romney, and became very well known in society purely because of his portraits of her. You've probably seen them without ever realizing who the subject was.

But Greville needed money more than he needed Emma, and he shipped her off to Naples to live with his uncle, Sir William Hamilton. He vaguely promised to come and get her someday, but in the meantime, Hamilton could enjoy having her as his mistress. Hamilton, a well known art collector, readily agreed to take possession of this famous artist's muse. Emma was unaware of the plan, and was furious when she found out. But she was savvy enough to play her cards right. Witty, intelligent, and gorgeous, she was a perfect hostess. As ambassador to Naples, Hamilton had to entertain a lot of illustrious people, and Emma was an accomplished singer, dancer, and enjoyed staging scenes for his guests. She called them her "Attitudes", and posed in slips of dresses to imitate classical heroines. She started a craze for Grecian dresses. And Hamilton became so enamored of her charms that he married her. She became Lady Hamilton.

As Lady Hamilton, she became close with the King and Queen of Naples and was on hand to greet a young naval hero named Horatio Nelson in 1793, when he came to recruit reinforcements against the French. She was influential enough in society to help spur the Anglo-Neopolitan Alliance. Nelson had his troops, and a safe Mediterranean port against the French. When the King of Naples courted France and cost England this port, only to have France march as close as Rome, the Queen begged Nelson to return. And he did.

Whether Nelson and Emma loved each other from the start is unknown. But by the time he returned in 1798, he had lost one arm, one eye, and most of his teeth, and was weak from illness. Emma flew into his arms, and fainted. Once she realized he was in worse shape than she was, she took him home and nursed him back to health. For his 40th birthday, she threw him a party with over a thousand guests. Contrary to the stolid figure of the film, Nelson loved parades and parties. He loved Naples, too, undoubtedly in part because of Emma. When the French threatened, he evacuated the King, Queen, and the British nationals (including the Hamiltons) and tried to put down local revolution in 1799.

When Nelson was recalled to England, the Hamiltons went with him, and they took the longest route home that was possible. You can probably guess why. They arrived in 1800, and Nelson enjoyed a hero's welcome before shocking the nation by moving in with the Hamiltons. He and Emma were open about their affair, and the Admiralty was so shocked that they were desperate to send him back to sea. Emma gave birth to their daughter, Horatia, in 1801 though neither claimed the child officially. Craving a quieter life, Nelson, Sir William, and Emma moved to the outskirts of London, and brought Emma's mother to live with them just for good measure. The public was shocked, but fascinated. Newspapers reported on everything they did, and Emma could set the fashion in food, dress, and home decor. Sir William died in 1803, and Nelson was recalled to sea in command of the HMS Victory.

Though some claim his ardor for Emma had cooled, I have my doubts, since he slept in bedclothes that were lavishly embroidered by her. (If you visit the HMS Victory you can see it -- it's been faithfully replicated in honor of their love affair.) In 1805, he died in the Battle of Trafalgar, shot by an enemy sniper, but manfully holding on to the end of the battle. His death in the film (from the way he hides from the crew to the way he holds on for the last cheer) is exact. (Hollywood would never deviate from an event that has its own shrine at the HMS Victory!) Among his last words were a request to Flag Captain Hardy to look after "poor Lady Hamilton." Hardy found a letter in his quarters addressed to Emma, reminding her of the love he had for her and their daughter.

But no one did look after Lady Hamilton. She was denied access to his funeral, which all of London attended. (Though no member of royalty did. They were so appalled by his affair that no royal representative went, though the Prince of Wales did escort his body up the Thames.) His wife and brother claimed all honors, money, and titles from his death. Emma did receive the house she had shared with Nelson and her husband. But the expense of keeping it up as a memorial to him depleted her slender finances. She had only the pension left to her by Sir William, and it was soon gone. She wound up in debtors prison before fleeing to Calais, where she drank and died in poverty. Horatia, never openly acknowledged as Nelson's daughter, lived a modest and long life with lots of children.

Nelson's story is a great one at any point in time. But it's no accident That Hamilton Woman was made in 1941, in the thick of World War II. It's pure patriotism at the time England needed it most. Nelson gives countless speeches about the tyranny of Napoleon, and the need to crush dictators, which are undoubtedly as much about Adolf Hitler as they are about Napoleon. It's no wonder Winston Churchill watched it over and over again during the war. I don't think it was all to do with his love of the figure of Lady Hamilton. It was the history! England hadn't surrendered then, and it wouldn't surrender now. He had to believe a nation that had once produced Nelson would produce hundreds of heroes like him in such a desperate hour of need. I suspect that Nelson's tomb was at least one incentive for his famous order to, at all costs, save St. Paul's Cathedral.

While 19th century England may have utterly disapproved of his affair with Lady Hamilton, history has always looked on it breathlessly from that point on as if to atone for the shabby way they treated them both. When I visited his tomb, someone had left a big red rose there -- and I'm willing to bet it wasn't because they admired his victory at the Nile, but his determined pursuit of that Hamilton woman.

categories Cinematical