You Have Been Watching…Whisky Galore!
Updated: Jun 2
This is one of the very best. If you’ve never seen Whisky Galore!, and that surely can’t be many of you, then you have a real treat in front of you. Based on the real-life story of the sinking of the S.S. Politician, which went down near the Isle of Eriskay in 1941 along with it’s cargo of 28,000 bottles of whisky. The myth soon grew that the locals had ‘rescued’ many of the bottles from their watery grave, and the seeds for one of Scottish cinema’s classic films were sown.
This is a more radical film than it first appears, as is the case with many of the Ealing comedies. The writer Compton McKenzie adapted the screenplay from his own novel of the same name, and he doesn’t miss his intended targets. The film looks at Protestant and Catholic divisions, the hold the church has particularly on Scotland’s Western Isles,and the inevitable hypocrisy that arises from this situation. McKenzie spent much of his life on Barra, and is buried there, so would have local knowledge as to the intricacies of life in and around the Hebrides. It is in this local knowledge that the films more subtle moments are to be found. He also wrote a sequel of sorts, Rockets Galore!, which was also made into a film in 1957 but it failed to match Whisky Galore!’s success.
The comedy can be fairly broad at times. The two islands are named Great Todday and Little Todday respectively, the character of Colonel Waggett is an obvious Colonel Blimp stereotype, many of the Scottish characters are also well kent characterisations, and the whole premise of Scots addicted to drink during the week, and to repentance on the Sabbath, could be seen as being problematic. Although, since the whole film hangs on this premise it would be churlish to be overly critical.
It’s directed by Alexander Mackendrick, who also directed The Ladykillers and the equally charming The Maggie for Ealing, and who also went on to direct one of my all time favourites The Sweet Smell of Success, the Hollywood Noir classic which starred Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. The Ealing comedies seem to have a formula which most of the directors stick to, and if you want to see how talented McKendrick was I would suggest the later Hollywood movie is the place to start. But there are enough nice touches in Whisky Galore! that hint at what was to come.
There are a few well known faces on screen. Fans of classic British comedy will recognise James Robertson Justice, Duncan Macrae, Joan Greenwood, Basil Radford and a rather dashing, and youthful, Gordon Jackson. The supporting cast, when they get time on screen, are terrific as the comedy background to the action. There are real weather beaten, and drink soaked, faces on show, and that applies to some of the women as well as the men.
You could accuse the film of bowing to Kailyard imagery of Scotland, of playing to the expectations of the audience, but don’t we still do that to a large degree? We’ve maybe got some new imagery, the Urban Kailyard of Trainspotting, Hallam Foe, 16 Years of Alcohol, NEDS, and many more of the films featured in this series. What is true is that the pace is leisurely, which, perhaps ironically, adds to the tension and I find is part of the films charm.
However, I have shown this film to quite a few audiences over the years, and you can almost hear some people losing patience, so maybe some will find that they too are inwardly screaming ‘get on with it’. All I can suggest is that you relax, patience is a virtue after all, perhaps pour yourself a large dram, and enjoy the type of film that they really don’t make anymore.