Once again I assign Kristina what I believe to be a solid western to watch and she gives me……. a film I had no idea that I would enjoy as much as I did this Laurence Olivier/Vivien Leigh teaming. This was the third and final pairing from the then married couple. It comes to us from Producer/Director Alexander Korda.
The Mad Challenge is when Kristina from Speakeasy and myself suggest a film that the other should check out. The one stipulation is that the assigned film is one that the challenged has never seen. Secretly I think Kristina is always trying to get me (a self proclaimed fan of the tough guys of film) reaching for the kleenex box. Something she seems to accomplish with practically every challenge.
This black and white tale is told in flashback when an aging woman is arrested for theft. Leigh as Lady Hamilton tells her cellmate the story of her youth and rise to fame in England.
At the age of eighteen Leigh finds herself in Naples expecting a suitor to arrive. When she realizes this is not to be she settles for aging Alan Mowbray who is the ambassador for England to Naples. Mowbray is swept up in her beauty and his love and devotion allows her a life of luxury and wealth.
Leigh is vibrant, full of life and looking for adventure. Adventure is about to arrive in the form of Laurence Olivier. He is playing Lord Horatio Nelson. Leader of the British fleet who is out to stop the threat of Napoleon. He’s come to Naples for help from the local Royalty and when Mowbray cannot make things happen quick enough through channels, Leigh steps in and gets Sir Larry all he requires in record time. His gallantry has caught her eye and he seems interested in return. But the war must go on.
Moving forward five years, Leigh hasn’t forgotten the impression Olivier made on her and she once again comes to his aid with the necessary provisions his ships need. This time however she realizes how war has taken it’s toll on the man she wants to know better. He has lost an arm and has a badly scarred face with a dead eye. Somehow it only makes her desire grow all the more for this courageous fighter of freedom.
There will come a time when Olivier with the power of the fleet beneath him will rescue Leigh, Mowbray and all of Naples from the clutches of the French. He’s continually hailed a hero in his homeland but the talk of a relationship with Leigh haunts him. He is summoned back to England.
Enter Lady Nelson played by Gladys Cooper who sees through the set up and how Mowbray meekly steps aside to allow the affair. She’ll have none of it. There will be no divorce.
With Napoleon once again on the rise the film has some timely propaganda lines meant more for rousing England against the tyranny of Hitler than Napoleon of history. Oliver begs the admiralty to listen as he implores them, “You can’t make peace with dictators. You have to destroy them! Wipe them out!”
With Mowbrays death Leigh and Olivier set up house but when his country calls him to arms once more Leigh lovingly steps aside. “England expects every man to do his duty.” Another slippage of propaganda into the script. Off to war goes Olivier once again in a rousing battle on sea.
It’s all heading to a tearful climax that sees a great line at the fadeout. “There is no then, there is no after.”
At slightly over two hours this moves along very well for a film that can easily be seen as a converted play. Despite plenty of action and warfare, it’s mostly talked about and seen off screen till the finale.
As for our leading lady, her beauty is stunning and while I don’t say this too often I think this film was just begging to be filmed in color. The sets of kings and courts coupled with Leigh would have made for a vibrant color production. In her early scenes she’s prim and proper in public but devilish and playful when out of Mowbray’s sight. There’s a rather surprising line in here as well from Olivier in describing Lady Hamilton that ends with her being an “honor to her sex.” Something one doesn’t here too often in a film of this vintage.
Despite remaining married until 1960 the couple never made another film together. The two previous titles were Fire Over England and 21 Days. I really should check out more of Olivier’s early efforts. Growing up I only knew him as a rather fragile looking old man in films like Dracula and The Boys From Brazil.
Perhaps due to the gungho attitude of this English feature it is said to be Winston Churchill’s favorite movie.
Acting as cinematographer for director Korda was Oscar nominated Rudolph Mate who would himself move on to directing features with some success. D.O.A. and The Violent Men come to mind.
So once again I find myself enjoying another title that I probably wouldn’t have put high on my to do list thanks to my video costar Kristina over at Speakeasy. Now don’t forget to check out what I think is one of Robert Taylor’s best performances in a 1956 western with Stewart Granger riding along side. Just click here to be shipped over there.