Whisky Galore: Scotch On the Rocks
A highland fling on a tight little island.
The era of Ealing comedies began with Hue and Cry in 1947, but Whisky Galore! has become the number one classic of the early films. This is director Alexander Mackendrick’s debut and he would also go on to make one of the last Ealing films, The Ladykillers (1955). He started out as a storyboard artist and worked his way up to directing films. Born American, he eventually returned to his home country and discovered that making movies in Hollywood required serious deal-making skills. He chose to start teaching rather than accepting the lack of something he enjoyed while making films like Whisky Galore! – freedom.
On a small island in the Outer Hebrides called Todday, World War II remains a fairly distant event. That is until the sad day in 1943 when the supply of whisky runs out. The consequences are dire. Everywhere you look there is a sad little man mourning the loss of what makes life worth living, the water of life. Then one day a ray of hope comes in the shape of an accident. A freighter, the SS Cabinet Minister, fails to navigate through the fog and runs aground just outside Todday. When two of the islanders row out to the ship to help the crew find their way to land they are told that the cargo consists of 50,000 bottles of whisky. The two men tell every living soul on Todday of the priceless cargo, but Captain Paul Waggett (Basil Radford), the English commander of the local Home Guard, prevents the islanders from looting the ship and orders a sergeant to make sure no one rows out to it. However, two of the local girls are courted by men willing to marry them… and you can’t have a traditional wedding without whisky being served at the party. A group of men decide to find a way to get as many cases off that ship as possible.
The story was inspired by a real event and makes playful fun of the traditional animosity between Scots and Englishmen where our sympathies are supposed to lie with the fun-loving Scots, not the uptight Englishmen whose little Home Guard duties become more of an obstacle to life on the island than an effective defense against the Germans. It is a very charming, uncomplicated film that pretty much avoids slapstick (except near the end) in favor of more discreet jokes. Watching these crafty villagers get Todday back on its (slightly inebriated) feet is a pleasure thanks to the cast portraying them, but Radford is also perfect as the earnest captain who tries to uphold some semblance of order and authority on the island. The film is nicely paced and features several amusing sequences that illustrate just how sad and subsequently nifty the Todday folks get about losing and then hiding their newfound whisky. However, several critics have labeled this film a masterpiece and it can’t quite live up to that promise. Enjoy it, but accept it for what it is – just a very fine piece of Ealing.
Modern viewers will discover that films like The Full Monty and Brassed Off are directly influenced by Whisky Galore! and other Ealing projects. That formula, with its small-town charm and ingenuity, is an enduring legacy.
The YouTube clip shows the drinking song scene.
Whisky Galore! 1949-Britain. 82 min. B/W. Produced by Michael Balcon. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Screenplay: Compton MacKenzie, Angus MacPhail. Novel: Compton MacKenzie. Cast: Basil Radford (Paul Waggett), Joan Greenwood (Peggy Macroon), James Robertson Justice (Maclaren), Jean Cadell, Gordon Jackson, Wylie Watson.
Trivia: U.S. title: Tight Little Island. Followed by Rockets Galore! (1957).
Quote: “It’s a well known fact that some men were born two drinks below par.” (Robertson Justice)
Due to spam, I am forced to moderate comments, which is why it may take a few hours until your comment is displayed.