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September 2011

Whisky Galore

cast: Basil Radford, Joan Greenwood, James Robertson Justice, and Gordon Jackson

director: Alexander Mackendrick

82 minutes (PG) 1949
widescreen ratio 1.66:1
Optimum DVD Region 2

RATING: 10/10
review by J.C. Hartley

Whisky Galore

For some reason often seen as the epitome of English cosiness, Ealing Studios made films that celebrated an anarchic anti-establishment streak that we didn't know we had. Alexander Mackendrick went on to make The Man In The White Suit (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955), for Ealing, as well as the critically acclaimed Sweet Smell Of Success (1957), for United Artists in the USA, which proved to be too strong meat for the times. Whisky Galore was his directorial debut. Based on a true incident, and adapted from his own novel by Compton MacKenzie, who plays the English sea-captain with a poor sense of direction, the plot concerns the wreck and subsequent salvage by thirsty Scottish islanders of a ship's cargo of thousands of cases of export whisky.

The island of Todday is dry, surviving on the occasional bottle of whisky sent as part of the local pub ration. The wreck of the SS Cabinet Minister seems like a godsend, except that it occurs on the Sabbath, and the island is host to an overly zealous 'home guard' commander in the shape of Basil Radford's Captain Waggett. When I holidayed on the beautiful Island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, my brother-in-law and I tore out of the house one Sunday morning to climb a big hill out back, hung out some washing, and set off on an energetic walk in the afternoon, only to discover that visitors are politely requested to behave a little more decorously on the Sabbath day. I saw a lady watching her kids play in the back garden for a few minutes before she called them back inside, presumably for Sunday observance. My gran had pretty much the same views, organising a bath on a Sunday took some pretty high-level negotiation when I was a kid.

When the Sabbath is over the islanders head down to the beach to try and save some of the scotch, only to come across Sergeant Odd (Bruce Seton who inherited his brother's baronetcy in 1963), guarding the wreck from the beach. Fortunately, the Sarge is in love with local girl Peggy (Joan Greenwood) and conspires with the locals to allow some of the booze ashore. Joan Greenwood was one of the most beautiful English actresses ever, and had the most fantastic voice. Her languid eyes and languid voice are deployed to good effect here, even through the phoney Scots accent. She famously dubbed Anita Pallenberg's Black Queen in Barbarella.

This is one of those films where my own phoney-baloney Scots ancestry (I'm a Cameron on my mother's side) always came up against my English patriotism. I always had a soft-spot for the English home guard captain, even though he behaves like the typical English prig of legend. When he tells his colonel by telephone that some of the booze may have been saved you can hear his CO declare "Well done Waggett!" You see, a case for himself, a case for his CO, and everyone would have been happy, and no film. As it is, Waggett calls in the excise officers and the islanders famously hide the drink in a variety of places such as hot-water bottles or under the baby. Not that such antics would surprise his CO or any Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer, who knows that people will do just about anything to keep their booze. The film ends with a tacked on moral, the free booze runs out and peacetime prices bring another drought, but true love and nice scenery make a paradise for teetotallers.

There are a few DVD extras: a commentary track, a TV documentary, a feature on the true story of the wreck of the SS Politician, an interview with Hilary Mackendrick - the director's wife, and a photo gallery.



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