Ealing’s Whisky Galore (1949) – re-released in cinemas and on Blu-ray
Hot on the heels of The Lavender Hill Mob, another Ealing Studios classic is out now in cinemas and coming to Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 8th August. Pour yourself a wee dram to celebrate.
(Alexander MacKendrick, GB, 1949)
Not a ‘dry’ eye in the house once these Scots start drinking and push cosily eccentric comedy past the 1940s boundaries of bad-taste anarchy
The key difference between the Brits and the Americans is that the Yanks’ WWII movies, almost to a man, are heroic, even sentimental stories of courage and valiant fight. Our predecessors, much closer to a genuine risk of invasion, found a much better weapon: irreverent mockery, even to the point of having a pop at ‘our boys.’ So it was that only four years on from VE Day, Ealing found a corner of the British Isles where the biggest threat to national character came not from the Nazis but a bureaucratic buffoon standing between an island full of alcoholics and their beloved dram.
Whisky Galore isn’t your conventional wartime movie. It isn’t even your conventional comedy. Ealing had a masterful ability to spot the potential of frankly bizarre material and Compton MacKenzie’s novel – inspired by a real-life incident in which a tanker full of whisky crashed off the coast of an Outer Hebrides island – mines a rich seam. Tradition versus modernity, rebels vs authority, Scottish versus English and of course drinkers versus teetotallers. The film’s almost radical notion is to remind that, with the threat of Nazi Germany, there was a bigger picture to think about than a spot of local crime. But the film is also something of a sigh of relief that there never was an invasion because the Home Guard was commanded by exactly the sort of pedantic fool portrayed (with exceptional self-deprecation) by Basil Radford. Seriously, we’d have been fucked – a joke that disguises its uncomfortable truth with whimsy galore, and which is so enduring that an entire TV series (Dad’s Army) was spun out of it.
Yet Whisky Galore is also a celebration of British eccentricity, and the film gains its punch from its sheer specificity. So much homegrown comedy relies on broad class and cultural stereotypes (posh Southerners, down-to-earth Northeners) that it takes Whisky Galore to remind us that there are other options. The people of Todday live their sheltered lives on a weird diet of booze and religion – possibly, judging from the example of Jean Cadell’s formidable, tyrannical Bible-basher, the latter accounts for the former. This is a community that will go to any lengths to steal 50,000 cases of whisky from a sinking ship, to the point of risking another ship’s crew to get tongue-wagging witnesses out of the way… but when the church bell chimes for the Sabbath, they won’t lift so much as a finger out of holy terror.
Watched not long after fellow Ealing classic The Lavender Hill Mob, it’s noticeable that Whisky Galore is, in structural terms, a heist movie, about intrepid crooks trying to stay one step ahead of the law.
This is a ripe set-up, which the film takes its time to unfold – the wreck doesn’t happen until 25 minutes into an 80 minute film. But after this mild, laidback beginning, the pay-off is a sudden injection of pace and humour, not least because of the film’s canny genre swap from class satire to thriller. Yes, really. Watched not long after fellow Ealing classic The Lavender Hill Mob, it’s noticeable that Whisky Galore is, in structural terms, a heist movie, about intrepid crooks trying to stay one step ahead of the law. The film piles on car chases and bootlegging hidey-hole montages straight out of American gangster movies…. Although, if anything, the Ealing version is more extreme: there’s no way Jimmy Cagney would ever have hidden liquor in a baby’s cot.
This was Alexander MacKendrick’s debut and paved the way for a career of leftfield, cynical satires (The Man In The White Suit, The Ladykillers) that would culminate in his American masterpiece, Sweet Smell of Success. This is an altogether nicer affair, but already MacKendrick has enormous fun pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable in a film whose heroes are pissheads – including possibly the best drunk sight gag in cinema, as the booze’s location is given away by two lines of footprints in the sand: one heading straight there, the other zig-zagging back and forth like a helter-skelter. And, just as he’d do to New York in Sweet Smell of Success, MacKendrick is a master of location filming, making Todday (in real-life, the island of Barra) as much of a character as anyone else.
It’s so idyllic you’d want to buy a round even without an infectious cast. It goes without saying that Joan Greenwood has the sexiest voice in cinema, but this is a merry band of rascals, especially the Machiavellian gleam in the eyes of James Robertson Justice’s doctor, a cavalier physician whose one and only remedy appears to be… yes, more whisky!