Optimum Releasing continues its commitment to the release of digitally restored British classic movies as the much loved Ealing comedy ‘Whisky Galore’ has its restoration premiere at the 2011 Edinburgh Film Festival followed by a limited cinema run. This coincides with its debut on UK Region B locked Blu-ray so we get a chance to see it in full 1080p in the comfort of our own homes. Coming hot on the heels of Ealing’s ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ on the High Def format, it’s good to see another old favourite being cleaned up to be presented to modern day audiences.
The film is based on the true story of the S.S. Politician which left Liverpool on February 3rd 1941, heading for Jamaica with a cargo of 250,000 bottles of whisky on board. The ship foundered in bad weather and sank near Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides. The islanders managed to liberate as many bottles as they could before the Customs and Excise men arrived but, even today, bottles are still found in the sand or in the sea. The news item came to the attention of Scottish humorist Compton Mackenzie, who wrote a novel based around it which, in turn, was the inspiration for his screenplay for the film.
It’s an interesting picture as it was Sandy Mackendrick’s first feature and the producer was Ealing’s own Publicity Director Monya Danischewsky, which must have worried the cost conscious studio head Michael Balcon – especially as it was shot on location on the island of Barra and went £20,000 over budget. This might sound like peanuts in today’s multi-million dollar movie world, but it was a near hanging offence in post war Ealing.
The film has a great cast including Basil Radford, Joan Greenwood, James Robertson Justice, Catherine Lacey, Wylie Watson and the ever excellent Gordon Jackson. Having grown up in Scotland, I well recall the disdain with which English actors attempting Scottish accents were regarded. The view was that there were enough good actors in Scotland, so why involve a ‘sassenach’. Mostly though, a Scottish audience simply smiled as a Londoner tortured the local dialect, turning a loch into a lock. The worst piece of casting ever was James Robertson Justice as a Highland chieftain in ‘The Massacre of Glencoe’. The only real atrocity was his accent!
Putting parochial issues to one side, the film provides great entertainment with its blend of subtle humour and clash of cultures. Basil Radford’s English Home Guard Captain Waggett just isn’t on the same wavelength as the Todday islanders and his blustering arrogance simply sets him up to have rings run around him as he attempts to ‘do the right thing’ by reporting the theft of the whisky.
One of the funniest scenes in the movie just has to be when the islanders are about to go out to the wreck to relieve it of its cargo of the ‘water of life’ when the village clock indicates that it’s past midnight and now Sunday morning. They may be about to steal a boat load of whisky, but they won’t do it on the Sabbath so they have to hang around for 24 hours before moving in.
The characters are so well drawn and observed, like Gordon Jackson as local Schoolteacher George Campbell, with the domineering mother (Jean Cadell) to whom he has to break the news that he’s going to be married – after she’s already heard it on the island’s jungle drums. Joan Greenwood is good as island girl Peggy Macroon being romanced by an English Army Sergeant (Bruce Seton) - a streetwise man who attempts to stop Captain Waggett from making a total fool of himself on several occasions by supplying a much needed injection of common sense. James Robertson Justice (accent aside) provides great substance as the local Doc with such good faith in the medicinal qualities of whisky that he knows exactly how many shots are required to overcome nerves without affecting speech. Watch out, too, for author Compton Mackenzie as the Captain of the doomed ship, the ‘SS Cabinet Minister’.
The fun really gets into full swing when the ‘authorities’ arrive on the island at the behest of Captain Waggett and, despite his attempts to be clever, the locals are a step ahead of him all the way. This is knowingly observed by Farquharson (Henry Mollison), the Customs & Excise officer who has seen it all before and is resigned to being thwarted at every turn, although he’s quite happy to watch the befuddled Waggett become increasingly wound like a top.
When the film was released in America, they couldn’t have the word ‘whisky’ in the title as it was deemed unacceptable in temperance states, so it was changed to ‘Tight Little Island’ for our colonial cousins. They also had to have a line at the end of the film that stated that the whisky soon ran out and the islanders went back to being as miserable as before – which totally flew in the face of the facts.
When you watch the film today, you realise just how many films have copied the theme of a tight knit community outwitting the authorities. Think of ‘Hear My Song’, ‘Waking Ned’ or even ‘Local Hero’. I’m willing to bet that during the pitch to raise the finance for each of those movies, someone said, “It’s a bit like ‘Whisky Galore’ meets...”
Everyone wants to make a film in the style of an Ealing comedy of yesteryear but the modern day Ealing Studios logo in front of a movie is no guarantee of similar quality. Think of the recent St. Trinians movies and you’ll get my drift. I sincerely hope that nobody is given the finance to remake ‘Whisky Galore’ as the original has such great charm and works so well in every department that it deserves to be left alone by modern day muggers.
This is one occasion where the old adage rings true – “They don’t make ‘em like they used to!”
Movie score : 9
1,098 word review written by Alan Paterson.
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