I first saw Whisky Galore back in college. It wasn’t part of a class, it was just a Saturday-night feature shown in the film department.
I went to Bard College, which is in a beautiful, rural part of New York State. Procuring booze wasn’t exactly difficult, but it could be a challenge, especially if you didn’t have a car. So this rollicking tale of whisky drinkers on an isolated island suddenly facing the prospect of living without “the water of life” resonated with more than a few audience members. Hell, some of us were probably only there because we couldn’t find any booze.
I enjoyed Whisky Galore the first time I saw it, but I didn’t find it uproariously funny. This time around was different. I now think it’s one of the best comedies ever made.
Except for a few sight gags here and there — like a straight line of footsteps leading into a cave where whisky is hidden and a weaving, curving line of footsteps leading out — most of the humor is subtle and tongue-in-cheek. I realized that I’d completely missed some of the funniest bits of the movie on my first viewing. (If you have even the slightest difficulty understanding English or Scottish accents — or if you’re at all hard of hearing — you’re going to want to watch this film with subtitles. The DVD currently available to rent from Netflix has no closed captioning, and there are several reviews written solely to complain about that fact.)
Whisky Galore is based on the novel by Compton MacKenzie, which was inspired by the sinking of the S.S. Politician in 1941. The screenplay is by MacKenzie and Angus MacPhail.
The film takes place in 1943 in the Outer Hebrides, on the fictional island of Todday. The Second World War is raging, but far from Todday. The Home Guard goes on maneuvers and set up roadblocks that would be ridiculous even without the benefit of hindsight. The Home Guard in Todday is commanded by the puffed-up Captain Paul Waggett (Basil Radford), who is English, and frequently mystified by the peculiarities of the Scottish natives of this far-flung island.
One day, disaster strikes. Not famine or pestilence, but something far, far worse. No whisky.
But then, one foggy night, the S.S. Cabinet Minister, a freighter carrying 50,000 cases of whisky, runs aground on the shoals.
When Waggett gets wind of the locals’ plan to “liberate” as much whisky as they can from the ship before it sinks, he jumps into action. Waggett feels strongly that order must be maintained. Allow a little looting, and anarchy will follow.
Whisky Galore wrings humor out of more than just forced sobriety and drunken revelry. It’s an extremely well-crafted film about small-town life.
Todday seems to contain just two small villages, Snorvaig and Garryboo. The insularity of Todday is personified by the young schoolteacher George Campbell (Gordon Jackson), who assigns his students a composition assignment, “Why I like living in Garryboo.”
One of his pupils reads his essay aloud: “There are more people in Snorvaig. But they are not so nice as the people in Garryboo.”
Even though Campbell is an adult with a real job, he lives with his mother (played by Jean Cadell), who still treats him like a child. She doesn’t let him use the telephone on the Sabbath, and when he protests, she scolds and punishes him. “Go to your room, George Campbell! There’ll be no church for you in Snorvaig today!” And he sheepishly complies.
All the actors in this film are wonderful, and perfectly cast. Besides the pitch-perfect performances by Radford and Cadell (who have the funniest exchange of the picture when he tries to convince her to let her son out of his room because he needs his Home Guard second-in-command), I especially liked the lovely Joan Greenwood and the stalwart Bruce Seton as the man who loves her.
But, as I said, all the actors are wonderful. And this is a wonderful film. Even the ending, which seems to have been forced on the filmmakers by the censors, is hilarious.