Whisky Galore! Review
On the Hebridean island of Todday, during the Second World War, disaster has struck – the local pub has run out of whisky. Then the SS Merchant Banker runs aground on the rocks and the islanders rescue the crew – only to find that their cargo is 50,000 cases of whisky...
Whisky Galore remains one of the best-loved Ealing Comedies, part of their annus mirabilis of 1949 which saw this film, Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets all released within the space of two months. But as with so many other success stories, it turned on a dime from abject failure. With a first-time director (Alexander Mackendrick) and location shooting on the Outer Hebridean island of Barra, it went over budget. Ealing head Michael Balcon disliked the result and it looked like the film would be cut down to a sixty-minute second feature. Saving the day was Charles Crichton, who took over from the credited editor (Joseph Sterling) and re-edited the film, the result being the film we know today. The Americans retitled the film Tight Little Island to avoid possible trouble with censors and temperance groups with a film referring to alcoholic drink in its title. On the other hand, in France it became Whisky a Go Go, giving its name to nightclubs ever since. It spawned a sequel in 1958, Rockets Galore (Mad Little Island in the USA), also shot on Barra, in colour with a different director (Michael Relph) and some but not all of the same cast, but far less widely known and shown. I've not seen it.
Whisky Galore! was inspired by a true incident, in which the SS Politician ran aground on the Hebridean island of Eriskay. This attracted the attention of Barra resident Compton Mackenzie, who wrote the novel Whisky Galore! on which the film is based. (Mackenzie appears briefly in the film as the Merchant Banker's Captain Buncher.) There's no doubt an article to be written – one may already have been done so – on the Scottish islands in cinema, from the Inner Hebridean I Know Where I'm Going! (filmed on Mull) or the even-Outer Hebridean Edge of the World (set on a fictionalised St Kilda though shot on the Shetland island of Foula - Michael Powell, though as English as they come, was a lifelong lover of Scotland) for the sense of community that underpins Whisky Galore! as well as other celebrated Ealing comedies. Whisky Galore! is a subtle comedy, its humour resting on characters and their warmly-observed quirks rather than slapstick, and it's no great stretch to see its influence over three decades later on Local Hero. As the commentary from John Ellis suggests, citing Philip Kemp, change genre from comedy to horror with the treatment by the community of the non-understanding outsider (Captain Waggett) you have The Wicker Man.
Over sixty years since it was made, with most of its cast and crew passed away (Gabrielle Blunt, born 1919, is still alive as I write this), Whisky Galore! is a life-affirming film about the joys of (legal) substance abuse and the twitting of pompous authority – a template, along with its 1949 coevals, for other Ealing comedies which followed and which are still watched with pleasure in the twenty-first century.
Optimum previously issued Whisky Galore! in a two-disc edition in 2005 which was reviewed for this site by Eamonn McCusker here. Optimum's 2011 reissue is a single dual-layered disc encoded for Region 2. This is a review of the DVD edition and affiliate links refer to that; go here for affiliate links for the Blu-ray.
The film was given an A certificate for cinemas back in 1949 and has been PG-rated on video and DVD before now. It was downrated to U for its 2011 cinema reissue, but unless Optimum resubmit it, their PG certificate from 2005 stands for homeviewing, so I'm pedantically noting that here. Not that this film would have much appeal to young children anyway.
Shot in Academy Ratio, Whisky Galore! is transferred to DVD in 4:3, not anamorphically enhanced. The film has benefited from a high-def digital restoration and the results are splendid. Gerald Gibbs's black and white photography is well rendered with strong blacks, clear whites and all the shades of grey that give monochrome cinematography its character and beauty, though this isn't visually isn't the showiest of films. Grain is certainly present, but it should be and it looks fine to these eyes.
The soundtrack is mono, as it always has been, and is clear and well-balanced. And Optimum have included English hard-of-hearing subtitles for this English-language film, for which much thanks, though they appear only on the feature and not the extras. Some exchanges of Gaelic dialogue is intentionally left unsubtitled.
The extras are reprised from the previous two-disc edition. The film comes with an optional introduction (5:06) by George Perry, a brief and enthusiastic runthrough of the salient points. John Ellis provides the commentary and he assumes familiarity with the film and promises to provide detail. And plenty of detail he does provide, pausing only so that pertinent lines of dialogue can be heard on the soundtrack. Although he does display a wry wit, this isn't the most entertaining commentary I've heard lately, but is certainly one of the most information-dense.
Ellis is also the producer of Distilling! (52:06), a documentary made for Channel 4 in 1990. Derek Cooper visits Barra and speaks to locals who were there at the time, tracing the story of the genesis of Mackenzie's novel and of the film. It benefits from the fact that several principals were still alive and able to be interviewed – Mackendrick looking much younger than his seventy-seven years and Monja Danishewsky looking quite frail though he was to outlive Mackendrick by a year. It's a film made with considerable affection. Stay through the end credits to hear Charles Crichton, also now departed, tell a hilarious story of how Zoltan Korda taught him to edit.
Next up is Mackendrick's widow Hilary, interviewed by Anthony Slide (36:56). There isn't an obvious rapport between the two as the body language becomes clear, but she does talk about how she met her husband and her part in the production. “The Real Whisky Galore” (19:46) is an interview with islander Angus Campbell, who also featured in the “Distilling!” documentary. He talks about the real-life events that inspired the book and the film. The interview oddly starts with an offscreen shout of “Lee!”. The clearly very elderly Campbell speaks softly and in a strong accent, which makes the decision not to include subtitles on the extras particularly regrettable.
The extras conclude with a self-navigating stills gallery (1:16).
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
7 out of 10
7 out of 10