Whiskey Galore (1949)

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This quaint Ealing comedy is based on a real life incident from 1941 where the SS Politician, whose precious cargo included some 22,000 cases of whiskey, was wrecked off the coast of two remote Hebridean islands and intrepid locals salvaged thousands of the cases for themselves. Scottish nationalist Compton MacKenzie first wrote a novel based on the incident and then later co-wrote the screenplay for this film alongside Angus MacPhail.

Whiskey Galore is a simple but effective story with the emphasis very much on light-hearted joviality. The films focus is the remote Scottish island of Todday, a small close-knit community many miles from the mainland and largely left to its own devices. Set in 1943, the Second World War still seems a very distant problem to the vast majority of Todday and wartime worries such as rationing is far from the islanders’ mind. That is until one fateful day when the unthinkable happens…..the island runs out of whiskey.

To say a film like this wouldn’t get made today is an understatement. Not only is the love of getting sauced the central theme of the movie, but it also paints all Scots as whiskey-swilling booze hounds who plummet into a black hole of despair at the thought of life without it. I will leave any jokes to be made here up to your own imagination.

Anyway, back in Todday the Islanders begin to lose all hope but amidst the despair two flourishing romances are blossoming and the young couples are set on getting married. English Sergeant Odd is courting one of local shopkeep Joseph Macroon’s daughters and timid teacher George Campbell the other. These two relationships provide the crowd pleasing heart of the movie, but they are essentially just window dressing for the big whiskey scam to follow.

When the SS Cabinet Minister runs aground near to the Island with some 50,000 cases of precious whiskey onboard, the Islanders band together and hatch a plan to liberate the stock for their own. Standing in their way is a blustery English Home Guard officer Captain Paul Waggett (Basil Radford), who due to his overblown sense of duty fears the island would descend into anarchy should people take the law into their own hand. What follows is a classic battle of wits between the wily working folk of Todday and the stuffy British nitwit. The early Scottish Independence movement must have loved this film.

Whiskey Galore possess an effortless warmth that you can’t help but get caught up in. It’s far from the funniest film that Ealing produced around this time, but it is hard not to raise a smile as the townsfolk inevitably triumph over their pompous adversary. It’s strange to think in a way that the film’s appeal lies in its audience sympathising and siding with the booze-hungry locals who technically break the law, while the upstanding citizen ultimately gets turned into the fool. It’s widely noted that Director Alexander Mackendrick and Producer Monja Danischewsky argued repeatedly over the film’s outcome with Mackendrick’s strict Calvinist upbringing leading him to side more with Captain Waggett, whilst Danischewsky, a fairly liberal-minded type, saw the Islanders side. It would appear the Producer ultimately proved triumphant.

Interestingly a coda added at the films climax was supposedly slipped in to appease the notoriously strict American censors of the time. The dour epilogue states that the whiskey stock did not last long and ultimately the Islanders lived sad and depressing lives. Apparently only the two teetotallers lived happily ever after. This piece of narration is grossly out of step with the rest of the film however and so luckily can be thoroughly ignored.

A movie very much of its time, but still a thoroughly entertaining underdog story.

Whiskey Galore is out on DVD 8th August 2011.

Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Stars: Basil Radford, Joan Greenwood, Catherine Lacey
Runtime: 82 min
Country: UK

Film Rating: ★★★½☆

2 Comments
  1. Kevin Matthews says

    Scots as whiskey-swilling booze hounds who plummet into a black hole of despair at the thought of life without it?
    *hic*
    Ummmmmmm . . . . . simply not true 😉

  2. Rob Keeling says

    Haha, yeah, I thought it best not to make my own joke there. Basically wrote itself.

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