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Basil Radford

Catherine Lacey

Bruce Seton

Joan Greenwood

Wylie Watson

Gabrielle Blunt

Gordon Jackson

Jean Cadell

James Robertson Justice

Morland Graham

John Gregson

James Woodburn

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There are some years which stand out as being particularly special for film in general, a particular genre or, in rare occasions, a studio. The latter was the case for Ealing studios in 1949, which saw the releases of the timeless classics Kind Hearts and Coronets, Passport to Pimlico and Whisky Galore! What made these all the more impressive was the parlous state of the British economy, only three years after World War II had ended, and the huge rebuilding process which is still under way to repair large areas of cities like Coventry, Plymouth and London, which had suffered severe damage in the Blitz.


Whereas Kind Hearts and Coronets was a black comedy which dealt with the more comedic side of multiple murder and Passport to Pimlico looked at what may happen if a London borough suddenly discovered it was an independent state, Whisky Galore! was a more charming – I don't mean that in a pejorative sense – film, adapted from a novel and based on true events. It also was the only one of three which featured World War II as a backdrop, with the Home Guard featuring prominently and the possibility of a German invasion raising tensions.


Set on a fictional Scottish island and based on the real-life shipwreck of the S.S. Politician near Eriskay in 1941 when the locals made off with the ship cargo of whisky, which was turned into a novel by Compton MacKenzie in 1947, Whisky Galore! follows the novel quite closely and, because of the number of 'dry counties' in the US, had to be retitled as Tight Little Island for its release over there. The entire film is set on the fictional Scottish island of Todday in the Outer Hebrides, which had been unaffected by rationing and where life was fun until the whisky ran out in 1943 and a dark cloud descended on the entire island, baking everyone sober and miserable.


During this period of general depression, Sergeant Odd, part of the Home Guard stationed on the island, returns from leave to officially court Peggy, the daughter of shopkeeper Joseph Macroon whilst his other daughter, Catriona, has agreed to marry George Campbell, a meek schoolteacher. However, Campbell's mother, a fiercely religious and domineering woman, refuses to give him permission to marry and locks him in his bedroom when he disobeys her and goes to see Catriona!


Things begin to look up when word reaches the island of a freighter, the S.S. Cabinet Minister, which has run aground off the coast and apparently has a huge cargo -- 50,000 cases – of whisky. With the precious liquid, known in Celtic as 'water of life', not officially belonging to anyone due to the shipwreck, the islanders begin to congregate on the shore and plan to row out to sea and 'recover' the cargo. However, when they are all ready to take to the water, the church bell strikes 12, signalling the beginning of the Sabbath and, being religious folk, they decide to hold fire for 24 hours.


During this period, the uptight English commander of the Home Guard, Captain Paul Waggett, decides to put an end to the islanders’ plans by stationing Sgt Odd at the coast with strict instructions not to let anyone go anywhere near the freighter. However, Odd's is more in tune with the locals than his commanding officer so, when Macroon drops the non-to subtle hint that, according to island custom, a man can't marry until there's been a reiteach (a party at which whisky is served), Macroon walks to his post and waits. When three islanders approach him and try to overpower and incapacitate him, they fail to sneak up on their target and Odd easily rumbles them. However, he then proceeds to tell them exactly what they did wrong and how they should have stealthily approached and tied up the enemy soldier. With Odd now (willingly) out of action, the coast is clear that the men to take their rowboats out to sea and take as many crates of whisky as they can before the ship capsizes and sinks.


Although George Campbell had been sent to his room, one of the islanders, the Biffer, convinces him to sneak out and take part in the 'rescue mission', something which proves to be a life-saving decision as Campbell is able to save the Biffer when he is trapped on board the sinking freighter. On the way back, George, a teetotaller, agrees to try some of the pressures liquor and, now fortified by his acts of heroism and, with some 'Dutch courage' inside him, stands up to his mother and tells her he won't be treated like a little boy anymore and will marry Catriona whether she likes it or not.


The problem of what to do with the whisky, which has been declared contraband, which is to be immediately seized by Captain Waggett, doesn't prove too difficult to overcome for the resourceful Scots who hide it in all manner of places and manage to stay one step ahead of the English Home Guard, whilst planning revenge on Waggett for being such a stick in the mud and killjoy all these years.


Near the beginning of this review, I described this film as 'charming', though not pejoratively, and it is very different from other Ealing comedies as it isn't a black comedy like Kind Hearts and Coronets, nor a higher tempo caper like The Lavender Hill Mob. There is a large element of 'us against them' with the enemy not the Germans, as will usually be the case in a wartime film, but the English Home Guard. Angus McPhail's screenplay manages to make you side with the Scots, whatever your nationality. There are some terrific characters and fine sequences, allowing director Alexander Mackendrick (in his first feature film) to maximise the comedic potential of the situation with his usual deft touches and eye for humour.


Whisky Galore! isn't my favourite Ealing comedy, but it is a wonderfully written, superbly acted and brilliantly directed film which stands up to repeated viewings extremely well and, as comedy is such a subjective genre, there are bound to be many people who would say this is their favourite of the Ealing comedies. No matter who you are, there is something quite brilliant about having the antagonist as a pompous, arrogant and uptight Englishman (quite beautifully played by Basil Radford), who even most English people will want to see get his comeuppance at the hands of the Scots whose lives he does his best to make a misery!


The Disc —>




Whisky Galore! (1949)
1080p Widescreen 1.37:1
LPCM 2.0 Mono English
English HoH




Alexander Mackendrick


Compton MacKenzie

Angus MacPhail


Ernest Irving


Joseph Sterling

Charles Crichton

Director of Photography:

Gerald Gibbs