Whisky Galore! (1949) Review

This film was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Mark Carnochan.

Whisky Galore! (1949)
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Screenwriters: Compton Mackenzie, Angus MacPhail
Starring: Basil Radford, Joan Greenwood, Gordon Jackson, James Robertson Justice

Although he would later go on to direct one of the most famous British films of all time in The Ladykillers, Alexander Mackendrick actually began his career on the humble, and fictional, island of Todday – the setting upon which the events of Whisky Galore! take place.

The aforementioned Todday is a small island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland; a place mostly unaffected by wartime rationing even by 1943. That is, until the whisky on the island runs dry. No sooner than the islanders enter a deep depression does a ship holding 50,000 cases of whisky crash off the coast of the island, causing the islanders to hatch a plan to steal the whisky from the stranded boat. However, Captain Paul Waggett (Basil Radford) has other plans.

The use of the word “galore” in the title of this iconic Scottish film is a nod to the abundance of whisky the plot centres around, but it could easily be in reference to the number of intertwining stories and characters written into the movie’s screenplay. In amongst the whisky plot explained above there is also a great deal of attention paid to romance storylines for example, those being the planned marriages of Peggy Macroon (Joan Greenwood) to Sergeant Odd (Bruce Seton) and Peggy’s sister Catriona Macroon (Gabrielle Blunt) to George Campbell (Gordon Jackson), the latter at the behest of Campbell’s mother (Jean Cadell). This over abundance of characters noticeably weighs down the rest of the film.

The whisky heist alone is not quite enough to hold an audience’s interest for an extended period of time but, with a short runtime of only eighty two minutes, the excessive number of characters leaves the screenplay feeling a little overcrowded. With so many stories to tell in such a short space of time, each character suffers, and consequently so does the narrative.

Despite the negative storytelling qualities of Whisky Galore!, it does have its positives – most notably in its humour. The film is packed with laughs, in particular its portrayal of the importance of whisky to the islanders. Set during World War II, the loss of whisky is presented as if more horrific than anything that the war could have brought, and so the cast’s reaction to the news is delivered in a very over the top and hilarious fashion.

Behind the camera, Mackendrick’s handling of the film’s aforementioned comedic edge marries effectively with moments of tension that Mackendrick keeps balanced on a knife edge, each revealing aspects of the filmmaker’s promise as the brilliant director he would later prove himself to be with The Ladykillers.  

Whisky Galore! remains one of the most famous Scottish films of all time, and in containing a charm that is unique unto itself it’s easy to see why it was so fondly received by the generation that it came from. But, with a number of issues regarding its narrative focus, and the passing of time negating the impact of its technical and cultural achievements, it is clear that this is not the type of iconic classic that will become beloved by contemporary audiences. 

A Scottish landmark as the nation’s first massive success, Whisky Galore! remains an important release, only one that could have perhaps benefited from the more tongue-in-cheek or outright comedic approach that you might have seen in a Laurel & Hardy or Marx Brothers film.


Written by Mark Carnochan

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