“You cannot make peace with dictators!” cries Lord Nelson. “You have to destroy them! Wipe them out!” In this over-determined dialogue from the 1941 film Lady Hamilton, the cinematic Nelson is calling for Napoleon’s blood but the actor playing him, Laurence Olivier, is breaking the fourth wall, directly addressing a pre-Pearl Harbor American movie-going audience and (c)overtly calling for military support in the war against Hitler’s Germany.
Throughout the film, Nelson educates his lover (Vivien Leigh in the title role) about the need to defeat Britain’s enemies. Lady Hamilton, in turn, provides Nelson the love and support he requires to fortify him for battle. Essentially, Hamilton is to Nelson what Ilsa Lund would later be to Victor Laszlo in Casablanca (1942): “part of his work, the thing that keeps him going.” Without Ilsa’s love, Victor would fall and the Nazis would conquer the free world; without Lady Hamilton’s love, Nelson would have lacked the will to defeat Napoleon at sea. In this respect, Leigh’s Hamilton is one of several cinematic heroines of World War II era films who symbolically represented a bold-but-embattled Mother England fighting a gendered, nationalistic conflict against the German Fatherland.
Released as That Hamilton Woman stateside, Lady Hamilton was one of several anti-Nazi propaganda films made by expatriate British filmmakers in America who were both officially and unofficially working with Winston Churchill to coax the United States into joining the Allies. Much like the 1940 Olivier and Greer Garson adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that preceded it, Lady Hamilton was a “heritage” film romance produced during the early years of the war featuring a heroine who exemplified the best qualities of British society. When conceiving of these projects, Churchill and his filmmaker collaborators calculated that the glamour and charisma of British actresses such as Garson and Leigh would challenge American perceptions of Great Britain as an aristocratic, outmoded, and snobbish society, and convince those living in the Colonies that British culture must endure.
In some respects, an infamous English courtesan made an unlikely choice for a character simultaneously representing Mother England and the best of British culture, but this was a sanitized version of Lady Hamilton appearing on screen. According to Molly Haskell, who wrote an essay on the film in 2009 for The Criterion Collection, producer-director Alexander Korda expressed some concern that the well-spoken and poised Leigh was not “vulgar” enough in the title role, but she chided him, “My dear Alex, you wouldn’t have given me a contract if I was vulgar.” Olivier, for his part, felt constrained playing Nelson as an iconic hero destined for glorious victory and death at Trafalgar instead of as a complex, flawed human being. Those who viewed the film after it was complete had different reservations. Hays Code-era censors and religious filmgoers of the time had some scruples about a movie that placed a romantic gloss on both the historically adulterous relationship between Nelson and Hamilton and on the contemporary adulterous affair between their actor counterparts, Olivier and Leigh.
Nevertheless, the film was effective as both a screen romance and as war propaganda. Churchill himself claimed Lady Hamilton as his favorite film, saw it more than 80 times, and carried a copy of the print with him whenever he travelled. Perhaps he was proud of the role he played in its production. According to film historian Stacey Olster, it was Churchill who asked Korda to make a movie about the romance between Hamilton and Nelson that would “promote Britain’s historic role as a scourge of tyrants.” And, as the Internet Movie Database attests, Churchill ghost wrote the Nelson speech quoted above and other monologues with similarly anachronistic political significance. This internet-source claim is consistent with British film historian Amy Sargeant’s observation that Churchill was sometimes directly involved with the creative output of the British film industry during his tenure as both Minister of Defence and Prime Minister of the wartime coalition government.
Significantly, not everyone was as enamored with Lady Hamilton as Churchill was. Pacifistic and isolationist groups in America boycotted the film, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee accused Korda of operating a British espionage and propaganda center on American soil, Olster wrote. Notably, the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor may have saved Korda from prosecution. He returned to England and a knighthood in 1942 in recognition for his contribution to the war effort.
Korda’s knighthood is unsurprising in light of the high regard both the Axis and Allies held the film medium as a means of spreading their ideologies domestically and abroad. As Philip Taylor, author of Munitions of the Mind: A History of Propaganda (1990) writes, “The Second World War witnessed the greatest propaganda battle in the history of warfare. For six years, all the participants employed propaganda on a scale that dwarfed all other conflicts… [T]he continued development of the communications revolution had, since the advent of sound cinema and radio, provided a direct link between those they governed, and between the government of one nation and the people of another. Propaganda was in this respect the alternative to diplomacy.”
Indeed, World War II itself was a “cinematic war,” as John Whiteclay Chambers II and David Culbert wrote in World War II: Film and History (1996). “From the outset, governments and national motion-picture industries used moving images – newsreels, documentaries, and feature films – to help mobilize populations for war…. Motion pictures provided an effective means of building unity in World War II in part because audiences in urban, industrialized nations, such as the United States, had been accustomed in the preceding decades to going to movie theaters regularly as a way of obtaining information and entertainment.”
The gorgeous, virtuous English women of the cinema were not merely the bait to lure reluctant Americans to the front lines in the manner described above. These regally beautiful and morally upright women were also the means of comforting the people of England in times of trial – especially during the Blitz. In Fires Were Started (1943), documentary-style images of the Queen surveying the devastation in the wake of the German bombing of civilian populations were meant to have a cathartic effect on domestic viewers. Outside of the realm of cinema, the writings of Regency-period novelist Jane Austen had a similarly calming effect on the people of England, and sales of her novels tripled during the war. Pride and Prejudice was a source of comfort to Churchill during a period when he was confined to bed with illness. However, he did marvel that Austen was able to write stories that appeared to be free of emotionally fraught references to the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. “What calm lives they had,” he observed.
Both the book and the film versions of Pride and Prejudice were fixtures of pro-British World War II propaganda. As Robert Lawson-Peebles observes in “European Conflict and Hollywood’s Reconstruction of English Fiction,” the 1940 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was part of the same propaganda project as Lady Hamilton. It was a literary adaptation, but it was, first and foremost, a war film designed to cure Americans of their troubling tendency to dislike stuffy Brits. According to Lawson-Peebles, Austen’s novel is about the limitations that social class, economics, and strict gender roles place upon women living in 19th century England, but the film adaptation is utterly unconcerned with such matters. Instead, Greer Garson’s Elizabeth Bennett is involved in a project of democratizing Olivier’s Mr. Darcy, making him less class-conscious and snobbish and more palatable to American audiences. Essentially, the Darcy rehabilitated by Lizzie seen at the end of the film is much more worth saving from the Nazis than the one at the start of the film, and that is what the film is really about.
Since the goal of the movie is to make the British aristocracy less offensive to American sensibilities, one of the central antagonists of the novel, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is transformed from villain into hero in the final reel. In Austen’s novel, de Bourgh opposes the union between Darcy and Elizabeth because Darcy would be marrying beneath his station into the scandal-ridden Bennett family and because she wants Darcy to marry her own daughter, Anne. In the film, de Bourgh is secretly in favor of the Darcy-Bennett union and is working with Darcy behind the scenes to secure Elizabeth’s hand. By refashioning de Bourgh into a benign figure, the film essentially robs Elizabeth of her victory over de Bourgh and considerably undercuts Elizabeth’s heroism and gravitas. However, fidelity to the novel was of less significance to the production team than aiding the war effort, so this major alteration was made to the narrative for practical and propagandistic purposes, much to the chagrin of literary scholars and devotees of the novel. Sadly, the film’s cartoonish renderings of Austen’s oeuvre as pro-aristocracy, broadly comic, and Cinderella-style fairy-take romance devoid of any feminist or intelligent satirical content continue to distort reader perceptions of her books, making them seem trivial escapist fare in the eyes of far too many.
While some American pacifists were suspicious of British and American co-productions such as Pride and Prejudice – and for good reason, – Hollywood grew gradually more bold in its support of the British side of the war as war fever grew in America. In fact, the American Office of War Information eventually began encouraging American filmmakers to join exiled British directors such as Korda in making British heritage films. Instead of a British filmmaker living abroad, an American director, William Wyler, would be the one chosen to helm Mrs. Miniver (1942), a film based on a 1939 British book that had found enormous popularity in the states. Jan Struther’s bestseller began life in 1937 as a series of lighthearted, semi-autobiographical columns in The Times of London. Following the invasion of Poland, the column transformed into a chronicle of how the horrors of World War II changed the lives of an average British housewife and her family living in a village just outside of London. Americans read in suspense, as Mrs. Miniver felt compelled to secure gas masks for her family, marveling how the once safe British family home could come under such threat from foreign attack. Eager to cast a popular actress to play the beloved title heroine, Wyler chose Garson.
Film studies commentator Meredith Hicks describes the film’s plot and propagandistic project in her essay, “Greer Garson and the Good War: How We All Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great Lady”:
Kay Miniver is first introduced agonizing over whether or not she should buy a hat that she desperately wants, afraid that she cannot afford it. She decides to anyway and is ecstatic. Beginning with this image sets up the transition from self-involved Kay Miniver of rosy pre-war England to the stronger Mrs. Miniver of the title who shows her true mettle in the way she handles air raids and a downed Nazi pilot in the domestic, feminized space of her own kitchen. The central symbol of the Miniver rose stems from the pre-war practice of flower shows that go on despite the threat of air raid, binding the ideas of consumerism and pre-war simplicity with what they were fighting for.
While Garson is the centerpiece of the narrative, audience sympathy is also evoked by her son, who enlists in the Royal Air Force, her beautiful daughter-in-law, who is killed by the German forces during an attack on her village, and by her husband, who aids in the Dunkirk evacuation. The finale concerns a sermon by the village vicar, who explains that civilian casualties call for civilian participation in the war effort. As the vicar declares, “This is the People’s War. It is our war. We are the fighters. Fight it then. Fight it with all that is in us. And may God defend the right.”
The two centerpiece scenes were written and rewritten, shot and reshot to make sure they achieved their maximum dramatic effect – and were the most powerful possible war propaganda. The segment in which Mrs. Miniver is held hostage in her kitchen by a German soldier was first filmed before Pearl Harbor, and – in that version of the segment – she was allowed to show fear and the German a modicum of humanity. After Pearl Harbor, the segment was reshot, and Garson boldly smacks the soldier in the face and overpowers him after he evilly boasts that the Third Reich will destroy all that she cares for. In a similar vein, Wyler and the actor playing the vicar, Henry Wilcoxon, collaborated on the vicar’s speech the night before it was filmed, rewriting it and refining it until they were sure it was ready for the camera. The result was a propaganda speech so powerful that Roosevelt had it reprinted on millions of pamphlets and flown and dropped over occupied Europe.
Mrs. Miniver was an American attempt at adapting a British novel and it wasn’t entirely successful from the British perspective. Several London film critics mocked the movie as being a mawkish and juvenile American attempt at voicing solidarity in a global conflict that they don’t understand in the slightest. In contrast, Joseph Goebbels cited the film as an admirable template for German propaganda efforts, while Churchill declared Mrs. Miniver “more powerful than a fleet of battleships.” Even more than Goebbels’ positive assessment of Mrs. Miniver, Churchill’s justifiably famous remark is a striking testimony to the power of cinematic narrative as a weapon of war.
To a degree, none of the films discussed in this article have stood the test of time. Lady Hamilton, Pride and Prejudice, and Mrs. Miniver are all remembered, studied, and occasionally watched, but few modern-day viewers would join Churchill in claiming any of them as a favorite film, despite the enduring appeal of Garson and Leigh as silver screen stars. The underlying propagandistic purposes of the films are too readily apparent, making all of them, to a degree, as melodramatic and silly as the British newspaper critics felt Mrs. Miniver was. They were used as weapons against the Nazis, which is a strong argument in their favor, as … you know … Nazis. Who likes them, anyway?
When I first saw the movies, I felt that the seams in their construction were particularly obvious during peacetime viewings. I’ve since seen them again and found that all three films seem somewhat less absurd when watched during a time of modern-day conflict. In some respects, the propaganda-saturated news and films that have been produced during the protracted “war on terror” – with their over-the-top, bloody computer graphics and Holst-style war music soundtracks – are even less subtle, sophisticated, and artistically worthwhile than these three films are.
Still, melodramatic and omnipresent war propaganda – new and old – reminds us that a war film need not necessarily be subtle (or be good art) to be effective as a means of calling the public to arms. We can pretend we are too smart to be taken in by hawks shedding crocodile tears during overwrought speeches punctuated by the flourishing of trumpets, but those tears and those trumpets are sometimes too insistent to block out completely. And how much easier it is for propagandists to whip us all up into a bloodthirsty frenzy when the spokesperson for the war effort – the one uttering the rallying cry – is a beautiful woman? What if it is the best and most beautiful woman your country has ever seen the like of? Can her call to arms be ignored? This is a sobering, frightening question to contemplate, even if the woman is on “our” side, and even if there are real reasons to fear and fight “the enemy.”
As historian Anne McClintock observes, “All nationalisms are gendered, all are invented, and all are dangerous.”