The Young Mr. Pitt (1942)

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Europe is not to be saved by any single man. England, 1783. King George III appoints 24 year old William Pitt (Robert Donat) as prime minister. When members of Parliament refuse to take Pitt seriously, he calls for a general election and wins. He sets to work on a programme of reform, focusing on rebuilding the navy while across the sea in France, Napoleon Bonaparte (Herbert Lom) begins his conquest of Europe. After rejecting an alliance with France, he puts his own mind at ease by selecting Admiral Horatio Nelson (Stephen Haggard) to lead the fleet… Does the Minister propose to defeat Bonaparte by earnest consideration? It’s not the most typical of Carol Reed’s films – you won’t see the visual flourishes for which he would become distinguished even if Freddie Young is responsible for some fine cinematography here. It’s a fairly conventional biography, adapted by Launder and Gilliat from the book by the Viscount Castlerosse, who also contributes to the dialogue (with the parliamentary exchanges based on real speeches in Westminster) and it’s pleasingly busy with sharp lines and buzzing with character, Donat’s face registering as is his wont every injury and sorrow. He ages convincingly, his personal worries – romantic, financial – mirroring Napoleon’s onward march:  Conquerors are invariably upstarts. It’s significant that this was made during World War 2, with a call to arms against such individuals resonant throughout the rise of this iteration of Hitler (rather unfair to Napoleon, I think). This is a lively piece of work, ripe with history, boasting a great ensemble including Robert Morley as Charles Fox, John Mills as William Wilberforce and Phyllis Calvert as Eleanor Eden, with an amusing Albert Lieven playing Talleyrand.  Do not seek fame through war

That Hamilton Woman (1941)

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Aka Lady Hamilton/The Enchantress.  They told us of your victories but not of the price you paid!  When small-town courtesan Emma Hart (Vivien Leigh) finds herself married off by her indebted uncle to British Ambassador to Naples, elderly widower Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), her world is turned upside down. Just as Emma is finally settling into her new life as Lady Hamilton, she meets British naval hero Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier) who vociferously opposes Napoleon’s growing empire and the two fall madly in love. However, their forbidden romance is soon threatened by the ever-growing shadow of the Napoleonic Wars... What a century it’s been: Marlborough rode to war, and Washington crossed the Delaware. Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette. The last of the Stuarts. Peter the Great. Voltaire. Clive of India. Bonaparte. The framing story of this famous propaganda work created by producer/directorAlexander Korda is that of Emma Hamilton ensconced in debtor’s prison in France, regaling her incredulous fellow prisoners with her incredible life story and her grand romance. That this involved once notorious real-life lovers, then married couple, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier (reunited by Korda from Fire Over England), must have been catnip to audiences. Indeed the film’s tagline boasted,  The Year’s Most Exciting Team of Screen Lovers! Its role in attracting the US into a total war nobody wanted is debatable. In fact Korda was accused of espionage, a charge he only escaped because his hearing coincided with Pearl Harbour:  special relationship?! There are always men, who for the sake of their insane ambition, want to destroy what other people build. The screenplay by Walter Reisch and R.C. Sheriff (with two of Nelson’s speeches contributed by Winston Churchill) condenses a lot of historical material and Olivier is perhaps a bit too slow but this is compensated for with the range of emotions Leigh explores to charismatic effect. Shot in the US, it looks gorgeous courtesy of Rudolph Maté’s intricate cinematography and the sumptuous design by Vincent Korda and Lyle Wheeler, with beautiful costuming by René Hubert,  while the romantic score is composed by Miklós Rózsa. There is no ‘then’. There is no ‘after’