How I Shall Play Nelson (1938)

How I Shall Play Nelson

Leslie Howard discusses his plans for this next film in this exclusive interview with J. Danvers Williams

Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard and I were lunching at the Pinewood Studios the other day when he suddenly laid down his knife and fork and exclaimed: “What do you think of this Nelson film that we are going to make next?”

“Personally,” I told him, “biographical films bore me to distraction. I thought that Zola was as dull as ditchwater and that Rembrandt was slow and pretentious. Nelson seems to me a far more difficult subject to handle than either of those.
“The very fact that we are all so conversant with the major incidents in Nelson’s career would make these incidents very difficult to reconstruct on the screen. An attempt to bring them to life with flesh-and-blood actors would probably cause them to lose their romance and become quite flat and unreal.”

“I’m inclined to agree,” said Howard. “One of the chief things to be guarded against in a film of this sort is banality. For this reason we are going to avoid all the better-known incidents in Nelson’s life, such as the placing of the telescope to his blind eye and the famous last message to the Fleet: ‘England expects that every man this day will do his duty.’
“Our attempt will be to place on the screen a reasonable portrait of Nelson: not the immaculate hero of public fancy but the man as he really existed–vain, self-willed, capable of great indiscretions, yet a hero in spite of it all.
“One of the chief points we want to make is that had not the last stages of Nelson’s career coincided with a state of great national emergency he would probably have died in obscurity.
“His affair with Lady Hamilton very nearly caused him to be ostracised by the Admiralty and it was solely because he was the only man capable of vanquishing Napoleon that they eventually put him in control of the Fleet.”

Too Many Incidents

“As you probably know, Herbert Wilcox was anxious for me to appear as Nelson opposite Anna Neagle in the part of Lady Hamilton. Wilcox’s idea was to make a romantic picture around the love-affair between Nelson and Lady Hamilton, giving each an equally important part in the picture.
“I feel personally that to do this would be to misrepresent the subject entirely. Emma Hamilton was certainly Nelson’s great love–but she was also his great tragedy. It was in spite of her that he achieved immortality. To sentimentalise over their affair seems pointless.
“Emma Hamilton will appear in our picture and we shall try to bring in a big international star for the part. But she will be shown in proprer perspective–as a woman of great beauty but little principle.”
Howard stopped and looked at me across the table. He had whetted my appetite for more information.
“What exactly is the theme of the film going to be?” I enquired.
“Well,” said Howard, “I am just as much opposed to the ordinary biographical picture as you are. In most of them the chief aim seems to be to pack in as much life-story as possible; to present in a number of brief sketches all the important incidents in a person’s life.
“This seems to me the wrong treatment. Such a film invariably becomes just a conglomeration of unconnected incidents, pointless and without design. There is so much material to be sandwiched in that there is no time to develop that which is of real value and interest–namely, the psychology of the chief character.
“Take Zola for example. I knew no more about this famous French author after I had seen the film that I did before. All the incidents through which Zola passed led nowhere.
“There was nothing about the character which singled him out as a great man. And this was not Paul Muni’s fault. No actor, however good, can possibly pack into a few short weeks of work the gradual change of a character as it develops over a lifetime.
“This, to my mind, accounts for the superficiality and dullness of most biographical films. We intend to deal very differently with Nelson.
“We shall just deal with a small part of his life, ranging between the battle of the Nile and the battle of Trafalgar – even between these two dates we shall not try to give a comprehensive picture of everything that happened, but shall weave a number of authentic incidents into the story and from this build up our character-study of Nelson.
“The film will be a mixture of intrigue and swashbuckling adventure. Nelson was at his best out at sea dealing with the scoundrels and ruffians who composed the rank and file of the British Navy.”

Visit to Naples

“His methods of seamanship were often rash and extremely unorthodox and came in for a good deal of criticism from his superiors at the Admiralty.
“the more the sea-scenes in this picture resemble those in Mutiny of the Bounty the better. I shall be pleased. They must have just that atmosphere of sturdy adventure, for it was with ships like the Bounty and with men like her crew that Nelson won his victories.
“After reconstruction of the battle of the Nile we shall show Nelson arriving on his battered flagship Vanguard at Naples. Here he is greeted by the King and Queen of Naples, whom, by his victory, he has delivered from an impending French invasion.
“Here, too, he meets Emma Hamilton, wife of the British consul. Intoxicated by Emma’s flattery and the hero-worship afforded him by the Neapolitans, Nelson decides to stay there with his ship and is gradually drawn into the intrigues of the corrupt court.”

Disgrace and Trafalgar

“His behaviour at this time is very interesting from a psychological point of view–interesting for an actor to reconstruct.
“Nelson was fully aware of the corruption and worthlessness which surrounded him yet so infatuated was he with Lady Hamilton that he convinced himself he would be serving his country best by remaining in Naples and becoming drawn into a lot of petty battles with Italian revolutionaries.
“In this atmosphere all Nelson’s worst characteristics came to the fore. He became vain and excitable, quarrelled with all his best friends and disobeyed order from Admiralty.
“Eventually Lord Keith who was sent out from England to take over the Fleet, induced Nelson and the Hamiltons to return home, remarking that ‘Emma had been in charge of the Mediterranean station too long.’
“Back in England Nelson was received with enthusiasm of the populace but was cold-shouldered by the King and the Admiralty. The fact that he insisted on taking Lady Hamilton everywhere with him made him very unpopular with society.”
“It was because of this unpopularity that, when the English fleet had to be sent to the Baltic on a dangerous and difficult task, the Admiralty chose for the supreme command not Nelson but Sir Hyde Parker.
“Probably they wouldn’t even have sent Nelson on the expedition had it not been for his great popularity with the general public.
“The position was very delicate. Parker began by keeping his formidable second-in-command at arm’s length but Nelson soon won him round.
“Knowing Parker’s weakness for good living he had a turbot caught off the Dogger Bank and sent it to the admiral with a bottle of wine and his compliments. Parker thawed and Nelson very soon had control of the Fleet in everything but name.
“Nelson dealing diplomatically with his rather unintelligent and indolent chief and gradually, with careful subterfuge, winning his affection, should afford good scope for some comedy sequences.
“It should also be interesting to show how Nelson’s superior intellect inevitably took charge of a situation. It was to him that everybody turned in an emergency. But Nelson bitterly resented being a subordinate. This, combined with the cold Baltic weather which aggravated his wounds, made him miserable and ill. He longed to wash his hands of the navy and be back in England with Emma.
“When at last he was recalled he retired to a small house at Merton and lived there with Lady Hamilton, surrounded by relics of his past glory. It is probable that he would have died there and never become the supreme hero of British history had it not been that, in a moment of crisis, he was the only man capable of leading the Fleet against Napoleon.
“We shall attempt to show that it was the immense situation that Nelson had to deal with that made him great. The weakness of his character, his vanity and his irritability, disappeared during the big naval and military drama which he played out with Napoleon.
“We are told that during the last few months of his life Nelson was heroic and serene. He did away with all formalities, lived with his captains and even discussed tactics with the common seamen.
“In these last scenes of the picture, leading up to the Battle of Trafalgar, there should be plenty of scope for swashbuckling adventure. So eager are we to imbue the film with this spirit that we shall probably bring across one of the Hollywood adventure experts, such as Henry Hathway, to direct.
“The fact that such a director would probably have little knowledge of nineteenth century naval tactics should be no great disadvantage for we shall employ experts on naval history to supervise the production.”

(Film Weekly, May 28, 1938)