Whisky Galore! – 1949 | 82 mins | Comedy | B&W
Whisky Galore! was filmed on the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, as far from Ealing yet still in the British Isles as possible. Monja Danischewsky, who had been Ealing’s genial publicity director since 1938, was given the opportunity to produce it, and rather to Balcon’s surprise asked for its director to be Alexander Mackendrick, who had not directed before. One novice was enough, Balcon felt, but two could spell disaster, and certainly his foreboding seemed to be justified when the film went heavily over budget (by some £20,000, a fleabite by today’s standards, but virtually a hanging matter at Ealing). The main reason was not the inexperience of the production team but the weather, the summer of 1948 being one of the legendarily awful ones.
The story was by Compton Mackenzie, a prolific and imaginative Scottish novelist, and a well-known figure in the islands, where he had a home. It was based on a true incident, when a cargo ship had foundered off the Isle of Eriskay. Some 50,000 cases of Scotch were aboard, as the ship had been destined for the United States. Since it was one of the most difficult commodities to obtain in wartime, and as it held a special place in the lives of the islanders – the word ‘whisky’ is derived from the Gaelic for ‘the water of life’ the decision was taken that it had to be privately salvaged at all costs. So while the ship was breaking up, the small boats were out at night milling around it like sharks nibbling at a piece of meat. The Customs and Excise were powerless to prevent the wholesale scavenging that went on and, while it was never discovered how much of the horde was saved from the depths, there was no shortage of the precious amber fluid in the islands for the rest of the war.
The remote island in Compton Mackenzie’s light-hearted, affectionate novel was called Todday, but it was undoubtedly based on Eriskay. The author himself wrote the screenplay in association with Angus MacPhail, and even played a small part in the film. Basil Radford was inspired casting as Captain Waggett, the Englishman in charge of the local Home Guard, who is puzzled by the somnolent demeanour of his troops. Being English, he is unable to comprehend the gloom caused by lack of whisky.
Then a cargo-laden ship founders on the rocks – but it is the Sabbath, and the islanders are unable to take immediate action. They realise that they will have to thwart Waggett, who is proposing to mount a defence. There was a difference of opinion between the producer and the director on the outcome of the story, for Mackendrick, having been brought up in strict Calvinist surroundings in Glasgow, sided entirely with the unfortunate Waggett, while Danischewsky, a liberal-minded Russian Jew (‘So they steal a little!’) could ace the islanders’ point of view. Because of the conflict, and Danny describes in his autobiography how he and Mackendrick fought every inch of the way from script to final cut, it might seem surprising that the film works so well. The humour derives from the fact that Waggett’s values are so clearly not those of the natives, and that there is no understanding between them. He is a decent, upright, well-intentioned, slightly pompous Englishman who regards the others as a bunch of half-mad anarchists.
We are told in the film’s epilogue that the whisky did not last long and that the islanders of Todday lived unhappily ever after, a concession to the strictly-applied morality code enforced on films shown in America and the director’s Calvinism. It does not, of course, have to be believed. Even the title was unacceptable in America, where the name of the familiar beverage (and indeed of all other types of liquor) was not permitted to adorn the marquees of movie houses, and so it became Tight Little Island. In France the film was called Whisky, a Go-Go, and enjoyed such success that a night-club was opened bearing the name, and the phrase came into common usage.
Extract© George Perry: Forever Ealing.
Alexander Mackendrick: Director
Jim Morahan: Art Direction
Monja Danischewsky: Associate Producer
Gerald Gibbs: Cinematography
Joseph Sterling: Editing
Charles Crichton: Editing
Ernest Irving: Music
Michael Balcon: Producer
Compton Mackenzie: Script
Angus MacPhail: Script
Basil Radford: Capt Waggett
Catherine Lacey: Mrs Waggett
Bruce Seton: Sgt Odd
Joan Greenwood: Peggy Macroon
Gabrielle Blunt: Catriona Macroon
Wylie Watson: Joseph Macroon
Gordon Jackson: George Campbell
Jean Cadell: Mrs Campbell
James Robertson Justice: Dr Maclaren
John Gregson: Sammy
A.E. Matthews: Col Linsey-Woolsey