Whisky Galore! (1949 film)

Whisky Galore!

UK film poster
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick
Produced by Michael Balcon
Written by Compton MacKenzie
Angus MacPhail
Based on Whisky Galore
by Compton MacKenzie
Starring Basil Radford
Bruce Seton
Joan Greenwood
Gordon Jackson
Music by Ernest Irving
Cinematography Gerald Gibbs
Edited by Joseph Sterling
Distributed by General Film Distributors (UK)
Release dates
  • 16 June 1949 (1949-06-16) (UK)
Running time
82 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

Whisky Galore! (released in the US as Tight Little Island) is a 1949 Ealing comedy film from the novel Whisky Galore by Compton MacKenzie. Both the film and the novel are based on the real-life 1941 shipwreck of the SS Politician near the island of Eriskay[1] and the unauthorised taking of its cargo of whisky. The plot deals with the attempts of Scottish islanders to take advantage of an unexpected windfall, despite opposition from British authorities. It starred Basil Radford, Bruce Seton, Joan Greenwood and Gordon Jackson. This was the first film directed by Alexander Mackendrick.


The inhabitants of the isolated Scottish island of Todday in the Outer Hebrides are largely unaffected by wartime rationing, until the supply of whisky runs out in 1943. Then gloom descends on the disconsolate natives.

In the midst of this catastrophe, Sergeant Odd returns on leave to court Peggy, the daughter of the local shopkeeper Joseph Macroon. Meanwhile, Macroon's other daughter, Catriona, has just become engaged to a meek schoolteacher George Campbell, although his stern, domineering mother refuses to give her approval.

During a storm, the freighter S.S. Cabinet Minister runs aground in heavy fog late one night and begins to sink. Local inhabitant's the Biffer and Sammy MacCodrun row out to investigate and learn from its departing crew that the cargo consists of 50,000 cases of whisky.

Captain Paul Waggett, the stuffy English commander of the local Home Guard, orders Odd to guard the cargo, but Macroon casually remarks that, by longstanding custom, a man cannot marry without hosting a party in which whisky must be served. Taking the hint, the sergeant allows himself to be overpowered, and the locals manage to offload many cases before the ship goes down. MacCodrun persuades Campbell to participate, though he had been sent to his room by his mother for a prior transgression. This proves fortunate, as Campbell rescues the Biffer when he is trapped in the sinking freighter. The whisky also fortifies teetotaller Campbell's courage enough so he can stand up to his mother regarding Catriona.

A battle of wits ensues between Waggett, who wants to confiscate the salvaged cargo, and the islanders. Waggett brings in Macroon's old Customs and Excise nemesis, Mr. Farquharson, and his men to search for the whisky, but the forewarned islanders manage to hide the bottles in various ingenious places, including ammunition cases which Waggett ships off-island. When this is discovered, Waggett is recalled to the mainland to explain himself, leaving the locals triumphant.



Whisky Galore! was produced by Michael Balcon, the head of Ealing Studios; he appointed Monja Danischewsky as the associate producer. Danischewsky had been employed in the studio's advertising department, and Whisky Galore! was his first job in production. With the studio's directors all working on other products, Balcon and Danischewsky asked Ronald Neame to take the role, but he turned the offer down. A first-time director, Alexander Mackendrick, was chosen from within Ealing's workforce, where he worked as a production designer.[2] The film was one of three comedies to be produced simultaneously, alongside Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets; all three were released into UK cinemas over two months.[3][n 1]

The screenplay for Whisky Galore! was written by Compton Mackenzie and Angus MacPhail, based on Mackenzie's own novel. The film and novel's story was based on an incident in the Second World War, when the cargo ship SS Politician, ran aground off the north coast of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides. Local inhabitants from the island, and from nearby South Uist, heard that the ship was carrying 22,000 cases of whisky; they rescued 7,000 from the wreck before it sank. Mackenzie, a Home Guard commander on the island, took no action against the removal of the whisky.[5][1] The plot underwent some modification and condensation from the novel, with a lot of the background removed; in particular, the novel's two islands of the Protestant Great Todday and Roman Catholic Little Todday were merged into the single island of Todday and much of the religious aspect of the novel was left out.[6]

The music for the film was composed by Ernest Irving, who had been involved in several other productions for Ealing Studios. Irving adapted themes from Scottish folk music to include in his compositions.[7] Alastair Sim was offered a lead role within the film, but turned it down, to avoid being typecast as "a professional Scotsman".[8]


The film was shot on the island of Barra in 1948. The summer of 1948 brought heavy rain and gales, and the shoot ran five weeks over its planned 10-week schedule while the budget more than doubled. The first cut of the resulting footage did not please Balcon, but Charles Crichton stepped in to re-edit it.

Director Mackendrick, who was raised in Glasgow, sympathised with the pompous, high-minded, but spoilsport attempts of Waggett to foil the looting. Mackendrick later said: "I began to realise that the most Scottish character in Whisky Galore! is Waggett the Englishman. He is the only Calvinist, puritan figure – and all the other characters aren't Scots at all: they're Irish!"[1]

Release and reception

Whisky Galore! was released into UK cinemas on 16 June 1949;[9] the film was financially successful.[10] The film was released into the US in December that year,[9] because of restrictions on the use of the names of alcoholic drinks in titles, the film was renamed Tight Little Island.[11] In France, the film was retitled Whisky à gogo; the name was later used as that of a discothèque in Paris.[12]

Critics warmly praised Whisky Galore! on its release.[13] The reviewer C. A. Lejeune, writing in The Observer, considered it "a film with the French genius in the British manner",[14] while the reviewer for The Manchester Guardian thought the film was "put together with ... tact and subtlet,[15] and Henry Raynor, in his review for the British Film Institute's Sight & Sound magazine, called it "one of the best post-wat British films",[16] Several critics identified that the script was excellent, and the reviewer for The Manchester Guardian thought that the main credit for the film should be given to Mackenzie and MacPhail for the story.[15] Lejeune thought that the story was treated "with the sort of fancy that is half childlike and half agelessly wise: it accepts facts for what they are, and only tilts their representation, ever so slightly, towards the fantastic and the humorous".[14]

The acting was also praised by many of the critics; Lejeune wrote that the actors portray "real people doing real things under real conditions",[14] while the reviewer for The Monthly Film Bulletin considered that "a talented cast sees to it that no island character study shall go unnoticed", while the lead roles "make the most of their opportunities".[17] The Manchester Guardian reviewer considered that Radford played his part "with unusual subtlety", and thought that among the remainder of the cast "there are so many excellent performances that it would be unfair to pick out towo or three names for special praise".[15] The critic Bosley Crowther, writing in The New York Times, thought that Radford and Watson were the stand-out actors of the film, although he considered that the rest of the cast were also strong.[18]

The film surprised many at Ealing Studios for the level of popularity it gained in the US, where it became the studio's first film to achieve box office success.[13] Crowther considered that "the charm and distinction of this film reside in the wonderfully dry way it spins a deliciously wet tale".[18]

Sequel and remake

Mackenzie wrote the screenplay for an unsuccessful sequel, Rockets Galore!, which was made by the Rank Organisation and released in 1958. The filming of a remake was taking place in August 2015 on Ardeer beach with Eddie Izzard in the role of Captain Waggett.[19]


  1. Brian McFarlane, writing for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, states that although it was not an aim of releasing the three films together, together they "established the brand name of 'Ealing comedy'".[4]


  1. 1 2 3 Romney, Jonathan (24 July 2011). "Another Shot of Scotch on the Rocks with a Splash of Wit". The Independent on Sunday. p. 42.
  2. Sellers 2015, pp. 146–147.
  3. Barr 1977, p. 80.
  4. McFarlane, Brian. "Ealing Studios (act. 1907–1959)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/93789. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  5. Duguid, Mark. "Whisky Galore! (1949)". Screenonline. British Film Institute. Retrieved 29 November 2016.
  6. McArthur 2003, pp. 16–17.
  7. Duguid et al. 2012, p. 107.
  8. McArthur 2003, p. 34.
  9. 1 2 McArthur 2003, p. 81.
  10. Sellers 2015, p. 51.
  11. Fidler, Jimmie (23 November 1949). "Jimmie Fidler in Hollywood". The Joplin Globe. Joplin, MO. p. 12.
  12. Doggett 2016, p. 353.
  13. 1 2 Sellers 2015, p. 151.
  14. 1 2 3 Lejeune, C. A. (19 June 1949). "Tipping a Winner". The Observer. p. 6.
  15. 1 2 3 "New Films in London". The Manchester Guardian. 18 June 1949. p. 5.
  16. Raynor, Henry (April 1950). "Nothing to Laugh At". Sight & Sound. 19 (2): 68.
  17. "Whisky Galore (1948)". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 16 (181–192): 117.
  18. 1 2 Crowther, Bosley (15 January 1950). "In Blythe Spirits". The New York Times. p. 1.
  19. Daily Mail, 22 August 2015


External links

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