Whisky Galore! (2-Disc Special Edition) Review
The fictional little island of Todday, which is sited somewhere off the north coast of Scotland, is having a quiet war. German bombs, which are targeted at British towns and cities much further south than Todday, are having little effect on the island and besides the occasional kerfuffle from the Home Guard - the poor placing of roadblocks and the like - Todday gets on with life generally as it has always done, with or without the war. Until, that is, the supply of whisky - the water of life for the population of Todday - to the island begins to falter and when the publican at the bar announces that he has run dry, the gloom on the island is as thick as the fog that rolls in off the North Sea.
On one such foggy night, a ship crashes on the rocks off the coast of Todday and as the islanders rescue its crew, they learn that its cargo is 50,000 cases of whisky. They are all set to help themselves to as much whisky as the island can support when they learn that Saturday has passed and that it is now the Sabbath. Being a religious, Calvinist community, the islanders can do nothing on the Sabbath but attend church and watch as the waves crash against the ship. Sunday is the longest day of the week for the islanders but as the sun sets and Sunday becomes Monday, a little boat heads for the stricken cargo ship. But as the islanders celebrate their haul, they learn that HM Customs & Excise will soon be arriving on Todday and must hide what whisky is now on the island. Unfortunately, the English captain of the Home Guard, Paul Waggett (Basil Radford), is also searching for the whisky to return it, which pitches him against the islanders. One has never had much time for the other but, now, it's a race to find the whisky and, for the islanders, to keep it hidden.
To draw a musical analogy, sometimes heavy is good. The world wouldn't be quite what it is without Physical Graffiti, Low or Berlin but, more often, we need Phil Spector's uber-pop. You might get weary of Low but you'll never feel tired of Be My Baby - who can say that they'll ever have too much of feeling happy? Having watched two versions of Ben-Hur and their complementary features over the last week, Whisky Galore! arrived like a break in the clouds on an otherwise rain-soaked summer's day. There's little wrong with Ben-Hur, more that it's sheer weight and presence on the screen can make one feel a little gloomy. Whisky Galore!, on the other hand, is just wonderful - a joyous, uplifting film that affirms the inventiveness and resilience of the human spirit and, in doing so, can make its audience feel genuinely alive.
The plot is one that would make a whisk(e)y drinker weep with happiness at such a thing happening. And, of course, Whisky Galore! is famously based on a true story, which makes it all the more remarkable. The prolific Compton Mackenzie, who co-wrote the script with Angus MacPhail and also enjoyed a small part in the film, based Whisky Galore! on a cargo ship that foundered off the Isle of Eriskay during wartime. The whisky, which was export-only and was bound for the United States, was happily pilfered by the islanders for their own use and despite investigations by HM Customs & Excise, the people of Eriskay enjoyed a supply of whisky that lasted well beyond the end of the war.
Not that you'll get this impression from watching Whisky Galore!, in spite of the obvious pleasure taken by the islanders at the celebration that follows their taking of the whisky. Blame this on a circuitous production, a fundamental disagreement between the director and the producer and a need for Ealing to take consideration of overt political in North America. Monja Danischewsky, who acted as producer, had a liberal outlook on life and respected the islanders theft of a little whisky whereas the director, Alexander Mackendrick, had a Calvinist upbringing and saw Basil Radford's Captain Waggett as the hero of the piece. As well as this disagreement - Danischewsky and Mackendrick clashed throughout the production - there was a strong temperance movement in the United States and rather than turn most of a nation against the film, Ealing ensured that the film ended miserably by implying that the islanders had confused drunkenness with happiness. Even the various titles of the film reflected these differing international moods with it being named Tight Little Island in the United States to avoid mentioning whisky whereas the more liberal French gave it the rather more exciting-sounding Whisky-A-Go-Go!
Of course, Whisky Galore! is not renowned as a film that was damaged irreparably by a great behind-the-scenes conflict and so it is surprising that it doesn't feel at all affected. Indeed, Whisky Galore! feels a very complete film with it being less about the whisky than the differing outlooks of the islanders and Waggett. Even in the film's opening scenes, as James Robertson-Justice's Dr. MacLaren races home having been up all night delivering twins but finds himself blocked by a roadblock erected by Waggett's Home Guard, the film becomes a comedy of manners between the earthy, resourceful, Scottish islanders and the decent but pompous and English Waggett. Indeed, much of the comedy of the piece comes not from a disagreement but that Waggett simply cannot see events from the point of view of the islanders, particularly in how the lack of whisky affects their mood. As the film races literally towards a climax with Waggett chasing a truckload of whisky on Todday's winding roads, it concludes with a pair of jokes that are amongst the best in the film and ensures that Whisky Galore! ends on an indisputable high.
Just as good, though, are all the diversions from the main plot, such as the mournful view on the war held by the islanders as the supply of whisky dries up and the relationship between George Campbell (Gordon Jackson) and Catriona Macroon (Gabrielle Blunt), much to the displeasure of George's strict mother (Jean Cadell), which ends with a confused and slightly incoherent George playing bagpipes in her front room. Best of all, though, is the sense of how a strongly rural community in the highlands and islands depends on the church, the pub and on family life to function and how the more urbane Waggett simply fails to understand this. Much of the footage in the film, such as the catching of lobster, children running out of school and the celebrations in the church hall, serves no greater purpose than to reinforce this impression of life in Todday and it is only because this creates such a sure foundation for the film that the laughs come as easily as they do.
When one thinks of Ealing comedies, yes, Kind Hearts And Coronets comes to mind, as does The Titfield Thunderbolt but so too does this and with some justification. Whisky Galore! is an enormously funny and life-affirming film that confidently mixes laughs with a way of life that is disappearing with every passing year. As such, it's a wonderful film that leaves the viewer with a smile as wide as the sky over Todday.
Whisky Galore! is a glorious-looking film on this DVD, with an almost perfect transfer from Optimum. Noise is almost non-existent and the contrast in the picture is simply beautiful, with a very complementary sharpness to the image. It's a DVD like this that make you wonder if the move to colour was an altogether wise idea so well does the story, production and look of the film work in combination with one another.
The mono soundtrack is just as good and the only criticism that one can make of it is the lack of subtitles, which is a major oversight by the DVD production company. Given the capacity of a DVD and the relative lack of features on Disc One, space is in no way an issue, which leads one to assume it was either laziness or a lack of interest in making a film such as this accessible to a hard-of-hearing audience. Either way, it's a shame that Optimum couldn't find either the time or resources to improve this part of the DVD production.
Introduction by George Perry (5m06s): Perry, who is the author of Forever Ealing, places Whisky Galore! in context with other films from Ealing Studios as well as the time in which it was made. In particular, Perry, following an discussion of the plot, talks about the political influence that was at play in the US at the time that the film was made and how the enjoyment of the whisky from the ship was downplayed to suit states that urged temperance.
Audio Commentary: John Ellis, who is considered something of an expert of British films from a book on Ealing Studios as well as the Distilling Whisky Galore! feature that has been included on this DVD's second disc, contributes a commentary that takes it for granted that the viewer has more than a passing knowledge of the film and goes instead for detail and lots of it. There are still many gaps in Ellis' commentary, mind, but for sheer amount of detail, it's hard to be particularly critical about it. Ellis refers to many texts throughout, including Mackenzie's novel and Alexander Mackendrick's On Filmmaking and despite what knowledge of the film you may bring to a viewing of this DVD, I guarantee that you will learn something from listening to Ellis.
The Ealing Comedy Poster Gallery: Almost a greatest hits of British comedy, this gallery ignores the best-known Ealing comedies for reproductions of the posters for Champagne Charlie, It Always Rains On Sunday , The Maggie and Whisky Galore!
Trailers: A small selection of trailers for other releases from the Optimum Classics range have been included here - It Always Rains On Sunday (2m33s), Moby Dick (3m04s) and Breathless (2m02s).
Distilling Whisky Galore! (52m05s): Presented by Derek Cooper, produced in 1990 for Channel 4 and including interviews with Alexander Mackendrick and other members of the crew as well as the cast, this is a fantastically detailed feature that takes in not only the production of Whisky Galore! but also the story on which it is based, the life of co-writer Compton Mackenzie and, in coming right up to almost the present day, the owners of the S.S. Politician, the ship whose crash inspired the original story. This covers almost everything in some small detail and tracks down many of the locals who worked on the film, including the dancer who doubled for Joan Greenwood, or who were living on the Isle of Barra during the production.
The Real Whisky Galore! (19m46s): Famously, Whisky Galore! is based on a true story and this short interview with islander Angus Campbell recounts his story of the plundering of the cargo of whisky on the S.S. politician. Whilst not terribly well produced - it opens with the interview shouting, "Lee?...er, sorry" as Campbell considers the opening of his story - this is a meandering and detailed, but possibly too detailed, recounting of the story of how the islanders managed to get so much whisky onto the Isle of Eriskay.
Hilary Mackendrick in Conversation (36m55s): Filmed recently, this features interviewer Anthony Sade talking with the widow of Alexander Mackendrick, the director of Whisky Galore!. Hilary never looks as though she really wants to be interviewed by Sade and he sounds as though he is, for the most part, dragging answers out of her. Because of that and despite the length of the interview, one doesn't really learn very much.
This two-disc Special Edition also includes a 64-page booklet on the making of the film that includes extracts from Alexander Mackendrick On Filmmaking. Unfortunately, given that we were supplied with check discs, we do not have a copy of this booklet and can only assume that it is included with the final release of the DVD.
Personally, and should you be feeling generous this Christmas, I am a confirmed drinker of both whisky and whiskey with a particular love of Oban, Bushmills and Laphroaig single malts. Whisky Galore! has, therefore, always held a special place in my heart, even long before I actually watched the film and, when I did see it some years ago, it didn't disappoint. Given how the right DVD can enhance one's enjoyment of a film - and, by being here, I'm sure we can all agree on that - this two-disc Special Edition of the Whisky Galore! is a joy and makes watching this a pleasure from beginning to end.
Last updated: 11/07/2018 20:03:17