Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Starring: Basil Rathford, Bruce Seton, Wylie Watson, Joan Greenwood
Recently I’ve been rewatching a number of films, films I saw once five or six years ago and which failed to make a deep impression on me. They are films that I know I’ve seen, but I really cannot comment on them intelligently. In an effort to rectify that situation, I’ve been making an effort to see them for a second time, to pay more attention to them, and to write up a critique for them. Whisky Galore! is one such movie, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover how much I enjoyed it in its second attempt. This film whistled right past me the first time around, causing no more than a blip on the radar, but it definitely had an impact on the second time around.
A Scottish island in the Hebrides loves its whisky. When whisky is rationed due to the war, the villagers go into mourning. One night, a huge ship carrying thousands of crates of whisky runs ashore off the island, and the villagers are eager to loot the cargo. Only bumbling, blustering Captain Waggett (Rathford), the head of the Home Guard, stands in their way.
I thought a lot about that plot description because there is a great deal more that happens in Whisky Galore! than the attempted looting of the whisky. There are love affairs and conflicts that pepper the plot line. Joan Greenwood’s sexy kitten voice seems to steal the show as her character becomes engaged to Sergeant Odd (Seton), but this is all simply a side issue. If you go into Whisky Galore! hoping for a love story, you will come up short. Don’t get tripped up by the tangents running around the story; they are merely there to distract you from the villagers’ desire to get their hands on the drink. That is the where the film shines.
That is also where Mackendrick’s direction shines best. I feel he didn’t quite know what to do with the Greenwood-Seton romance, or the story of the young man with the overbearing mother. The film definitely slows in these sequences and loses some of its effervescence. But get Mackendrick shooting scenes where the villagers are plotting how to get whisky, trying to steal whisky, or concealing whisky, and there is a magic switch that is pressed. The film positively comes alive. Watching the villagers positively turn themselves inside out in their pursuit of alcohol is very funny, and Mackendrick treats us to several well-edited montages showing us exactly that.
Although the film is funny – very funny – there is more than a little cynicism running through it. After all, this is Alexander Mackendrick, the director who, in a few years, would direct Sweet Smell of Success, a film staggering under the weight of its own bitterness. While the villagers are amusing and definitely the “heroes” of the tale, Mackendrick does not necessarily portray them in a positive light. He mocks them, and more than once. We are not really laughing with the villagers more than we are laughing at them. For example, in one of the opening scenes, a narrator describes how the inhabitants of the island “find ways to amuse themselves.” Cut to a shot of a child running out of a door, followed by another child, then another, then another. I lost count after eight kids. Similarly, the villagers first want to raid the shipwreck on late Saturday night. When midnight strikes, they all halt, realizing it’s the Sabbath, and they cannot work on the Sabbath. The way Mackendrick treats this is far less with an air of respect for these people for observing the sanctity of Sunday, and far more snorting laughter at those foolish enough to let a good opportunity go to waste. The very final end of the film underlines Mackendrick’s dark side; the entire length of the film has been a celebration of the joys of drinking, but the movie closes on a decidedly unhappy note. It’s sudden and unexpected intrusion of the real world into the happy little fantasy land the movie has thus far stayed within. It’s as if Mackendrick leans to the audience after the finale of the plot and says, “Look, this can’t possibly be real, what I’ve just shown you is too fantastical, so I’m going to burst that pretty little bubble I’ve built up.” I don’t know if I necessarily enjoy that final coda of the film, but keeping in mind where Mackendrick went with his career after this film, it makes perfect sense.
Ultimately, Whisky Galore! is exactly the film you expect given its title: an unabashed celebration of the glory of alcohol. Villagers are drunk but never hung over; inebriated but never rowdy or rude. They want whisky badly but they are not addicts. Utter fantasy? Absolutely, but certainly joyful, even with the occasional dour notes, and very funny.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10