Whisky Galore!, 1949.
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick.
Starring Basil Radford, Bruce Seton, Joan Greenwood and Gordon Jackson.
Scottish islanders attempt to plunder a ship's cargo of whisky when it becomes stranded on the shore.
Some films need a run-up. They need their entrance onto the DVD market trumpeted by fanfare, or at least a couple of bars of Zadok the Priest tooted on on a ceremonial kazoo. Whisky Galore doesn’t need that confidence boost. Sixty years of high praise from the cinema-going public and the BFI have taken care of that. So let’s crack on with the what, the who and the why of Whisky Galore.
1943. The Isle of Todday, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, has run out of whisky. The locals, scotch drinkers to a man, are mortified. One man is struck down dead with the shock of it. Just as all seems lost, and it seems as if they’ll be doomed to drink lemonade ‘til the end of the war, the SS Cabinet Minister is wrecked just off the island, abandoned by captain and crew with 50,000 cases of whisky still on board.
Whisky Galore thrives on the idea that all the great Ealing Comedies play on; that anyone, man or woman, old or young, rich or poor, is capable of becoming a criminal. Probably the funniest thing about the Isle of Todday is that everyone on it becomes a criminal. If not an actual looter of the ship, they’re willing accessories to the fact, and, let’s face it, we want them to get away with it.
This is Alexander Mackendrick’s doing. A story other directors could (and would) mire in moral complexities is dealt with simply but decisively. His first feature remains a masterpiece in compact storytelling, aided in no small part by the expert pacing Charles Crichton introduced in his uncredited re-edit.
It’s Mackendrick’s outstanding cast though, that bring these canny little islanders to life. There’s a young Gordon Jackson as a henpecked son born two drinks below par, and Joan Greenwood purrs a seductive Scottish burr into the telephone exchange. Supporting them, a wealth of craggy, characterful faces fill our screens, needing only to twitch a wrinkle to prompt fits of raucous laughter. Watch the crowded scenes and see if you can tell which are the actors and which are the real islanders.
For all that, Jean Cadell and Basil Radford’s scene-stealing antics are what drive the action. Cadell plays Mrs Campbell, a strict Calvinist, strict mother and award-winning purveyor of sour grapes. Basil Radford’s Captain Waggett is the prototypical Captain Mainwaring, pompous and bureaucratic, convinced he’s the only honest man for miles around. Equally determined to stop people having fun, their personalities clash in a delightfully believable scene where the Captain’s second-in-command is locked in his bedroom by his mother.
Mackendrick delights in this oddly familiar brand of comedy. His characters aren’t necessarily funny because they always have an answer for everything. They’re funny because they feel authentic. They don’t fall into neat moral categories, they act and sound confused when faced with new situations. We don’t judge the islanders for hoarding looted goods, but neither do we hate Waggett and the customs men for trying to catch them out.
So why is this funny? Let’s take Farquharson, the customs officer constantly trimming his fingernails, as a case in point. Waggett secretly calls him in to help catch the looters red-handed. Whilst he’s there, Farquharson is the most powerful man on the island. They chase the islanders’ truckful of whisky along the island road, only to run straight into the barbed wire roadblock Waggett had the Home Guard build earlier. Waggett opens the driver’s door. “We’ll have to cut our way out.” Without missing a beat, Farquharson hands Waggett his nail scissors. From this moment, we utterly adore Farquharson.
This DVD release is the best Whisky Galore has ever looked, sounded, felt. The quality of the home cinema medium has finally caught up with the quality of the film, so waste time? Get this in your film collection, if only to fill out the ‘W’ section. Wizard of Oz and Where Eagles Dare will be glad of the company.
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