It’s amazing what you can find on YouTube. After completing “Nelson’s Folly", written from the perspective of my ancestor Viscountess Francis Nelson, I decided to look for screen interpretations of the Nelson legend. Available for free on YouTube is the full length 1940s movie That Hamilton Woman.
That Hamilton Woman is a 1940s Hollywood interpretation of Horatio Nelson’s affair with Emma Hamilton, starring the real-life lovers Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.
Emma Hamilton Re-imaged to Inspire Sacrifice
Made during the Second World War in Hollywood by a British expat, it was intended to promote Britain’s war effort in the United States. An eager promoter of the film was Winston Churchill who has been quoted as saying it was his favourite film. It is easy to see he wanted a film about an earlier life or death struggle replicating the challenges of Britain in the Second World War. Seen from this perspective, the Emma character is an avatar calling for the women of America and Britain to make sacrifices irrespective of the cost.
Its eternal themes and lavish production make this 80 year old film still worth watching. It portrays the intoxication of love, the tragedy of unfaithfulness, the magnificence of courage and the inevitability of ruin for those who defy accepted norms of behaviour. Nonetheless it is very much a product of Hollywood industry at that time.
British History With An American Twist
Most noticeable is the accent of the two stars. Sometimes confused with a “posh” English upper class accent, ‘Transatlantic’, as it was known, was a confected Hollywood accent taught in American acting schools in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties. In reality, Emma Hamilton was from Cheshire, the daughter of a blacksmith who, according to contemporaries, spoke in a ladylike English mingled with Cheshire overtones. Horatio had a high pitched voice which probably included some Norfolk accent and the abrupt intonation common to sea captains. Nelson despised and envied the elite, so positioning him and Emma as comfortable” upper middleclass Americans” starts everything off on a strange note.
History Through Rose Coloured Glasses
The plot presents Emma Hamilton, wife of the British Ambassador, Sir William Hamilton, at the very epicentre of power in the state of Naples. This exotic location in the Mediterranean is depicted at the place where English sea power supposedly depended. In the film, the strategic role of the Battle of the Nile which decimated Napoleon’s navy is ignored. It appears as if the Battle’s main role was to give Emma the opportunity to tend to Nelson’s wounds. It also ignores the fact this crucial battle was waged without much help from Naples.
According to the film, Nelson relied on Emma to capture the attention of the King of Naples through her friendship with the Queen, thereby securing Britain’s interests. The reality was very different, but raising doubts about the wisdom of their activities in Naples would defeat the purpose of the movie – to show two lonely souls far from home engaged in a “great mission” together, who then fall helplessly in love.
After Naples, the film portrays Horatio and Emma returning to England where their daughter, Horatia is born. They live together at Merton before the climax is reached at the Battle of Trafalgar when Horatio “bequeaths Emma to a grateful nation,” which, of course, proves to be “ungrateful” as far as Emma’s finances are concerned. The end is in sight and after Horatio’s death we see Emma’s decline and fall into debt and alcohol.
Image: Emma Hamilton by George Romney c1785 - features in the film to inspire Ambassador Hamilton to keep Emma from returning to the UK.
No Room for a Loving Wife
My ancestor, Fanny Nelson, is largely ignored by the script writers. The film maintains that Horatio never returned to England after 1793 until 1801. Actually he returned England in 1797, injured at the Battle of Santa Cruz and under some criticism for his failure in that battle. Fanny lovingly nursed him back to health. Afterwards he boasted to Lady Spencer that she was the best thing in his life. It was only after the battle of the Nile, eighteen months later, that he became entangled with both Emma Hamilton and the affairs of Naples.
In the film’s version of history, Fanny is once again an awkward ghost at the feast and must be airbrushed out of the picture as she had been, in reality, for most of the previous century. The truth is different. Fanny’s support of Horatio on the home front for most of the time between 1793 and 1801 was much more valuable to Horatio and the country than Emma’s machinations in the corrupt court of Naples. What was portrayed in the film as a vital interest was an entanglement which, for a while, damaged Horatio’s reputation in the Navy and visited a social scandal on the nation. Horatio’s audacious tactics leading to victory at the Battle of the Nile had won the gratitude of the British public who were then willing to “turn a blind eye” to his “Menage-a-Trois”. The aristocracy, however, felt otherwise and he and Emma were largely excluded from Polite Society.
People who like “Gone with the Wind”, romantics who want to escape back in time into a passionate world that never really existed and also rusted–on Nelson fans are most likely to enjoy it.
Image: Gladys Cooper as Fanny Nelson in That Hamilton Woman
Would Olivier Approve of a Renewal?
My novel Nelson’s Folly takes a very different approach to the film. I have aimed to give a voice to those who suffered as a result of what happened in Naples, in particular Fanny and her son Josiah. I have also stayed within the historical facts, including strategic battle details and the politics involved. Nevertheless, I enjoyed watching That Hamilton Woman. It is fascinating to see a classic story rewritten as a product of its time, reflecting the needs of a UK wartime audience and the aspirations and values of America and Hollywood in the 1940s.
I met Olivier many years after he made this movie on the set of an undistinguished film whose name escapes me. I can imagine him reading the script of That Hamilton Woman with his characteristic weary cynicism. If he was alive today, I think he might agree it is time for a remake.
In our era where Cancel Culture is looking at heroes from a different angle and the Me Too movement is calling for more respect for the role of women, it would be extremely interesting to see what a modern movie interpretation of this classic myth could become. It would be delighted to be a part of this.
Any Ideas Anyone?
Nelson’s Folly would provide a script writer with a new and more provocative interpretation of the story. It would make it easier to create a new film more accurate in its depiction of this complex hero while giving more respect and credit to the women, without losing the drama and excitement that always accompanies the exploits of Horatio Nelson.
Does anyone have any insights or advice on the next step towards making this happen? Please email me at email@example.com.
Nelson’s Folly is available in hard copy or on kindle at Amazon.com.au and other online book stores or at The Constant Reader Bookshop in Mosman and Crows Nest.
Image: Vivien Leigh as Emma Hamilton in That Hamilton Woman. Don't mess with me.