not in our stars, but in ourselves
16/52: A movie set in a different place
Is it cheating to use a studio-era film as the exemplar of a movie set in a different place? Perhaps. I don’t care. “Cheating” is sort of the point of this one, so I’m just trying to stay true to the spirit of the thing. That Hamilton Woman, a gorgeous British dream of the romance between Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier – er, between Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson – is set mostly in a gorgeous dream of Naples, with gorgeous dreamy sets and costumes. However, because it was a British film released in the first half of 1941, it’s really set in World War II-era Europe: the comparisons between Napoleon and Hitler are about as subtle as cannon fire.
In Calais, an aging alcoholic Englishwoman is apprehended by the police for trying to steal a bottle of wine. In the ensuing struggle, a number of other female streetwalkers enter the fray, and are all thrown into jail together. One of them asks the drunk about herself, and she reveals that she is Emma, Lady Hamilton (Leigh) – once the most beautiful woman in the world. She tells the inquisitive streetwalker her story.
At the age of 18, she went from England to Naples. In England, she’d worked as a dancer (the subtext is that she was quite racy – a sort of exotic dancer without much of the exoticism) and taken up with the nephew of the British ambassador to Naples. The nephew, Charles, is drowning in debt; and so his uncle, Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), decides to pay off his nephew’s debts…as long as Charles sends Emma to Sir William. Initially, Emma is horrified and humiliated, but Sir William promises her all the comforts she could hope for: a beautiful home, influential friends, luxurious clothes, parties galore. She consents. In his capacity as ambassador, Sir William meets many important people – including Captain Horatio Nelson (Olivier). Nelson is attempting to convince his country (through the ambassador) that Napoleon is an avaricious dictator who won’t stop trying to take over all of Europe unless and until England stops him. Emma helps Nelson secure additional troops for a battle, through her friendship with the Queen of Naples; and she helps him when he falls ill at a party in his honor; and she further helps him when his fleet of ships is left adrift at sea, without sufficient supplies, prevented from docking in Naples – and a word from Emma to the Queen ensures that Nelson and his men can dock and refuel. Before long, the two are madly in love. Initially, all are willing to tolerate the affair, as long as it doesn’t hurt England’s war against Napoleon; eventually, however, fate tears them apart, and Nelson dies a hero’s death in the Battle of Trafalgar.
Back in Calais, Emma’s cellmate asks, “And then?” Emma responds, “Then what?” Her eager cellmate: “What happened after?” Emma pauses briefly, and moans, “There is no ‘then.’ There is no ‘after.'”
In 1941, the moviegoing public was all agog to see the beautiful Viv and Larry. Their own love story was, in its early stages, quite like Emma’s and Lord Nelson’s. They met as actors first, each married to someone else; their professional rapport blossomed into something more; and, by the time Leigh was cast as Scarlett O’Hara, their passionate affair was basically an open secret. (Olivier had traveled to Hollywood to film Wuthering Heights, thus deepening Leigh’s resolve to win the most coveted part in all of cinema – they couldn’t bear to be apart.) The Oliviers’ love story ended about as tragically as Lady Hamilton’s and Lord Nelson’s, and perhaps moreso, but audiences in 1941 knew only one thing: they were freshly divorced from their prior spouses, and newly wed to one another. Marketing for the film played on the parallels between the couple onscreen and the couple in real life. Posters screamed, “The Year’s Most Exciting Team of Screen Lovers!” No kidding.
What did the Production Code have to say about all this glorified adultery? Oh, nothing good, but we do have a largely sanitized love affair: we get a few close-mouth kisses, but no real hints of anything more salacious (despite Emma’s child by Horatio – a child and a pregnancy we never see). And besides, they both lose out in the end: Nelson dies, and Emma withers away in an alcoholic stupor.
Still, it’s all presented as pretty noble stuff. This is likely due to the real-life appeal of the Oliviers, and to the film’s real purpose as anti-Nazi propaganda, but it’s in the diegesis as well. Sir William tells Emma, on his first night with her, that he wants his home to be full of beautiful ornaments – and she would be the most beautiful of all. He enjoys her company, but only as he would enjoy a pet’s company. When she tries to improve her mind and learn more about the world beyond his villa, he pooh-poohs her efforts, and suggests she focus on her pretty dresses and parties instead. Compare this to Lord Nelson, who, when he first meets her, is impressed by her intellect and her savvy; and, after he’s thoroughly enchanted by her wit and her charm, he succumbs to her beauty as well. How many classical-era films bother to present this choice for a female protagonist: between a man who views her as property, as part of the furniture, and a man who loves her for herself? There are a few, I know, but not many. In its way, That Hamilton Woman is quietly feminist. She does what she wants. Even if she does it because she loves Lord Nelson, it’s ultimately her decision. Nelson understands that – and loves her more for it. And of course, past is prologue: how often is the choice for a female caught in a love triangle in more recent movies between security and life as a pet, and a man who ardently admires her heart and soul? Fewer times than I’d like to see, I’ll tell you that.
P.S. The climactic Battle of Trafalgar is pretty freaking impressive – and intense – considering it was shot in 1941 with miniatures. Don’t forget: this is really a war movie, above all else.