Friday, 24 June 2011

Whisky Galore! (1949)

When a Scottish island falls prey to a whisky shortage, the islanders are desolate. But when by chance a ship is sunk with a cargo of 50,000 cases of whisky, they see their salvation. But first they must outwit the English Home Guard commander who is determined to protect the cargo at costs.

Whisky Galore! was the second of three films released in 1949 - the others were Passport to Pimlico (d. Henry Cornelius) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (d. Robert Hamer) - which forever linked 'Ealing' and 'comedy' in the public imagination. It also marked the directorial debut of Alexander Mackendrick, previously a screenwriter and storyboard artist on several Ealing films.

Whisky Galore! was adapted by Compton Mackenzie and Angus MacPhailfrom Mackenzie's novel, itself based on the true story of a famous incident in 1941, in which the SS Politician - whose cargo included 22,000 cases of whisky - was wrecked near the Hebridean islands of Eriskay and South Uist. Dozens of boats from every nearby island soon set upon the wreck, rescuing some 7,000 cases from a watery end.

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The novel, and Mackendrick's film, relocates the story to the fictional island of Todday, and is not only a celebration of the islanders' single-mindedness, but a homage to the restorative powers of Scotch, which magically restores a community in deep depression for want of a 'wee dram'. Producer Monja Danischewsky called the film "the longest unsponsored advertisement ever to reach cinema screens the world over."

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Despite a difficult production beset by often appalling weather, and a slow start at the English box-office, it became a worldwide hit and Ealing's most profitable film. It is also one of its most fondly remembered, particularly in Scotland. Its success owes much to its remarkable feeling of authenticity: with the exception of Basil Radford and Joan Greenwood most of the cast were Scots, with the extras coming from among the islanders of Barra where much of it was filmed. The constant attentions of the islanders helped the cast to perfect their accents.

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Unlike the gentle comedy of Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore!'s humour has an often cruel bite, most of it at the expense of the pompous English Home Guard commander, Waggett (Radford), whose efforts to frustrate the islanders' pursuit of whisky result only in his own undoing.

Waggett's qualities - innocent, decent, not too clever - would have chimed perfectly among the Burgundians of Passport to Pimlico (in which Radford also appeared). But it's exactly these qualities which mark him out as the victim of the wily Todday islanders. The hapless Waggett is comprehensively defeated, and his final humiliation absolute - even his wife bursts into laughter at his fate.



Published by


Volume 16, No.187, July 1949, page 117


Hebridean Comedy. The island of Todday lies off the west coast of Scotland in the Outer Hebrides. It is 1943 and the islanders are plunged in gloom; there is no whisky, or, as they call it in Gaelic, the water of life. Paul Waggett, an Englishman in command of the local Home Guard, cannot understand the listlessness of his troops. Sergeant Odd, another Englishman, comes to help him instruct them. Joseph Macroon at the post-office, his daughters Peggy and Catriona, his friend the Biffer, and George Campbell all feel the loss most keenly. Then a ship carrying a cargo of 50,000 cases of whisky is wrecked off Todday. It is the Sabbath and the islanders cannot begin to salvage, but after twenty-four hours of suspense - for Captain Waggett has plans to defend the looting - the whisky is landed and the dawn breaks on a new island. A double betrothal ceremony is held, with a seven-gallon jar of whisky as a centrepiece, to celebrate the forthcoming marriages of George Campbell and Catriona, Sergeant Odd and Peggy. But Captain Waggett discovers the main supply of whisky hidden in a cave and reports to the nearest Excise Officer. When the Excise men appear, however, the whisky has vanished, and only Captain Waggett is implicated.

The story is adapted from the novel by Compton Mackenzie, who is also part author of the screen play and who plays a small part in the film. It was filmed entirely on the island of Barra, and has been produced and directed with a refreshing sense of comedy and an understanding of Anglo-Scots relationships. The central joke may soon be tired of, but the situations it illuminates have a variety of their own. and a talented cast sees to it that no island character study shall go unnoticed. Basil Radford as Captain Waggett, Jean Cadell as Mrs. Campbell, Gordon Jackson as George, and Joan Greenwood as Catriona make the most of their opportunities. There is some beautiful outdoor photography.

The Monthly Film Bulletin was published by the British Film Institute between 1934 and 1991. Initially aimed at distributors and exhibitors as well as filmgoers, it carried reviews and details of all UK film releases. In 1991, the Bulletin was absorbed by Sight and Sound magazine.

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