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It’s a well-known fact that some men are born two drinks below par.


Whisky Galore!
aka Tight Little Island


Ealing’s third hit of the year, after Passport to Pimlico and Kind Heats and Coronets. Collectively, they’re rightly regarded as peak Ealing, along with The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit a couple of years later. Whisky Galore’s theme of wily locals outwitting “ruling” English could later be found in the likes of The Irish R.M. while Basil Radford’s Home Guard Captain Waggett has a whiff of Dad’s Army’s Mainwaring (he even says “I was wondering when you’d think of that” at one point, covering for his own failures). Whisky Galore! could best be described as a gentle comedy, along similar lines to Mackendrick’s later also-wily types The Maggie.

Mackendrick was, it seems, on the judgemental side about the antics of the Scots, so falling behind the efforts of Wagstaff: “I began to realise that the most Scottish character in Whisky Galore! is Waggett the Englishman. He is the only Calvinist, puritan figure – and all the other characters aren’t Scots at all: they’re Irish!” This at least partly coloured his view of his debut as director. He’d already had Compton Mackenzie – adapting his novel of the same name, based on an actual incident – and Angus MacPhail (a veteran of Will Hay pictures) rewrite the script. For his part, Mackenzie felt, with the gutting of the Protestant vs Catholic element, the essence of the novel had been lost. 

The Home Guard element was transposed from another Mackenzie novel, Keep the Home Guard Turning. Not helping Mackendrick’s appreciation of his own work was a production that went massively over budget (due to appalling summer weather). He entered the dismissive verdict that it looked “like a home movie”. Obviously, that’s far from the consensus response (albeit, Michael Balcon didn’t much like what he saw, only giving the picture promotion when it received good reviews. By this point, Charles Crichton had done something of a salvage job).

Mackendrick’s moralising is curious in that it could be argued obverse to his later The Man in the White Suit. There, the establishment is entirely culpable, scuppering utopian dreams in favour of the capitalist/ status quo. The anarchist, if you will, is brought low. The anarchists are the islanders here, and the movie is with them, even if the director is not. As Waggett’s moderate wife persistently and resignedly attempts to suggest, what’s being dealt with here is only a few bottles of whisky. What’s the harm in that? 

One might point to both groups as being astray. Waggett favours rule and order simply as a force unto itself, as illustrated by his nonsensical attempts to validate his redundant Home Guard manoeuvres and defences. The islanders, devoted to their traditional ways and idiosyncrasies, are nevertheless loveable drug addicts, bereft without their precious whisky (an amusing montage has them hiding the swiped liquor, several bottles concealed in a crib beneath an oblivious baby). 

The introduction is thus somewhat satirical, as it promises “A happy people, with few and simple pleasures” before getting to the whisky drought and revealing the stark truth: “Life without it was not worth living”. They do not, thus, enjoy the spiritual or holistic benefits of the Hebrides. They’re too simple to appreciate them. Indeed, it’s notable that they too are imprisoned by strictures of their own, bound to observe the Sabbath, such that they won’t mount their salvage operation until the following day. This is clearly presented for quirkiness value, but it rather underlines materialist ones (they’re partial to spirits rather than the spiritual, and uphold traditional rituals rather than believing in a meaningful manner).

Consequently, while the US-induced coda, describing how, after the victorious islanders had their fill, they soon fell into disrepair and “all lived unhappily ever after” may have been a moral judgement on ill-gotten gains and entirely out of keeping with the happy-go-lucky scamps who deserve our full backing, but in the cold, harsh glare of an unsustainable prop for their unfulfilled lives, it has some bearing. Of course, that coda honourably exempts (English) Sergeant Odd (Bruce Seaton) and his betrothed Peggy Macroon (Joan Greenwood). Because they don’t drink whisky. 

Ostensibly, they’re the romantic comedy element in the picture; there’s also a subplot concerning Home Guard and schoolteacher George Campbell (Gordon Jackson), attempting to extract himself from his harridan mother’s apron strings in order to wed Peggy’s sister Catriona (Gabrielle Blunt), but this is very much knockabout stuff (George eventually summons some Dutch courage and drowns out ma’s protests with a burst of bagpipes. Mrs Campbell has been no more obliging in allowing her son to perform his uniformed duties; “No one’s asking your son to eat human flesh!” implores the exasperated Waggett). What Odd and Peggy lack, however, beyond any chemistry and anything in common (he’s more than a decade-and-a-half older than her), is a sense that the writers are remotely invested in them. Greenwood gets second billing and the chance to try out a Scot’s brogue over her husky seductress tones, but if you didn’t know better, you’d call it a glorified cameo. 

Indeed, there’s much more play of Odd being on board with the locals’ ways and recognising Waggett as both too full-on and none-too-practical. He recognises the craftiness of Joseph Macroon (Wylie Watson) bargaining whisky for his daughter’s hand (for the réiteach), and he encourages a trio to bind and gag him so they can get out after the 50,000 cases of whisky doomed to the depths once the SS Cabinet Minister has sunk; the salvage operation is a success, but further exertions are required to keep the loot out of Waggett’s hands. This culminates in an inspired use of whisky as fuel for that last desperate sprint to safety.

Pauline Kael called Whisky Galore! a “convivial little classic”, and it seems Ealing weren’t prepared for the picture’s US success (their first hit across the Pond). Perhaps they should have been, as the flavour of quirky, nostalgic local colour was something John Ford had tapped into with How Green Was My Valley, and would repeat a few years later with The Quiet Man. Possibly too, sticking it to the English was a tonic. All the Ealings of the year were nominated for Best British Film BAFTA (The Third Man won, but classic as it may be, Kind Hearts and Coronets was the true deserving party).

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