I wonder if, since the popularity of the Broadway musical Hamilton, there will be a new historical costume movie or TV series about America’s first Secretary of the Treasury. Because all we’ve had until Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit show is 1931’s almost totally ignored film Alexander Hamilton. One interesting parallel between these versions of Hamilton’s life is that both stars, Miranda and the 1930s George Arliss got a writing credit, as Arliss co-wrote the stage play his movie was based on.
This film does cover the essentials of Alexander Hamilton’s story, vacillating between the politics of running a new country and creating some intrigue from the main character’s personal life so the two strands intersect in the end. We start by seeing Hamilton as George Washington’s right-hand man during the Revolutionary War and then the chief counselor in Washington’s cabinet. This leads to conflicts between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in the new Congress. At home, Hamilton is shown having a perfect little marriage with Betsy, until she needs to leave and care for her sister in England. When the cat’s away, the mice will play — especially if he’s setup by political rivals, at least, that’s how Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds (called “Mariah” Reynolds in the movie) is portrayed. His infidelity is pitted against his government position, and the stars and stripes win in the end with a decidedly unromantic flourish.
Unfortunately, it’s all a bit tedious — just showing off from talky actors instead of a moving drama, a legit history, or even romantic intrigue. The political scenes are unsubtle in the wordplay; I expect more from an adapted stage-play (compare to A Man for All Seasons or Beckett). George Arliss’ Alexander Hamilton is a foppish, purse-lipped bureaucrat, wearing shiny brocades and dripping with lace. Montagu Love’s Jefferson is a dull nonentity, and other characters keep trying to build him up by repeating his full name, as in ‘well what does Thomas Jefferson think about that?’ And the women are, of course, cliches, as typical of the era’s films.
Ditto the costumes — 1780s by way of 1930s, and I suspect costume designer Earl Luick (nope, hadn’t heard of him before either) wasn’t all that stressed out about historical accuracy or even consistency. I think we’ll just have to wait to see if Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway show ever becomes a movie, because then we’d get a more engaging drama, and while the costumes might stick with the musical’s modern-meets-historical aesthetic, at least that would make its own sense.
This trailer for Alexander Hamilton is more exciting than the film itself!
What historical biopics have disappointed you lately?