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Whisky Galore! (1949 film)

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Whisky Galore!
Whisky Galore film poster.jpg
UK film poster
Directed byAlexander Mackendrick
Produced byMichael Balcon
Written byCompton MacKenzie
Angus MacPhail
Based onWhisky Galore
by Compton MacKenzie
StarringBasil Radford
Bruce Seton
Joan Greenwood
Gordon Jackson
Gabrielle Blunt
Music byErnest Irving
CinematographyGerald Gibbs
Edited byJoseph Sterling
Distributed byGeneral Film Distributors (UK)
Release date
  • 16 June 1949 (1949-06-16) (UK)
Running time
82 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

Whisky Galore! is a 1949 British comedy film produced by Ealing Studios starring Basil Radford, Bruce Seton, Joan Greenwood and Gordon Jackson. It was the directorial debut of Alexander Mackendrick; the screenplay was by Compton MacKenzie, based on his 1947 novel Whisky Galore. The story – based on a true event – concerns a shipwreck off a fictional Scottish island, the inhabitants of which have run out of whisky; the islanders find out the ship is carrying 50,000 cases of whisky, which they salvage, against the opposition of the local Customs and Excise men.

Like others of the Ealing comedies, Whisky Galore! explores the actions of a small insular group facing and overcoming a more powerful opponent. It was filmed on the island of Barra; the weather was so poor that the production over-ran its 10-week schedule by five weeks, and the film went £20,000 over budget. The initial cut of the film was considered poor by Michael Balcon, the head of the studio, so one of Ealing's directors, Charles Crichton, added additional footage and re-edited the film prior to its release.

Whisky Galore! was well-received on its release. It came out in the same year as Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets, leading to 1949 being remembered as one of the peak years of the Ealing comedies. In the US, where Whisky Galore! was renamed Tight Little Island, the film became the first from Ealing Studios to achieve box office success. It was followed by a sequel, Rockets Galore!. Whisky Galore! has since been adapted for the stage, and a remake was released in 2016.


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 near Todday in heavy fog late one night and begins to sink. Two local inhabitants, 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 Waggett, the stuffy English commander of the local Home Guard, orders Odd to guard the cargo, but Macroon casually remarks that, by long-standing custom, a man cannot marry without hosting a rèiteach in which whisky must be served. Taking the hint, the sergeant allows himself to be overpowered, and the locals manage to offload a large number of cases before the ship goes down. Campbell had been sent to his room by his mother for a prior transgression, but is persuaded to leave and assist with the salvage by MacCodrun. This proves fortunate, as Campbell rescues the Biffer when he is trapped in the sinking freighter. The whisky also fortifies the teetotal 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.



The film historians Anthony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards describe Whisky Galore! as a progressive comedy because it upsets the established social order to promote the well-being of a community.[1] Like other Ealing comedies, Whisky Galore! concerned the actions of a small insular group facing and overcoming a more powerful opponent. The film historian George Perry writes that in doing so the film examines "dogged team spirit, the idiosyncracies of character blended and harnessed for the good of the group".[2] The device of pitting a small group of British against a series of changes to the status quo from an external agent leads the British Film Institute to consider Whisky Galore!, along with other of the Ealing comedies, as "conservative, but 'mildly anarchic' daydreams, fantasies".[3]


Compton Mackenzie, the writer of both the source novel and the screenplay, shown in 1914


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; he was employed as a production designer.[4] The film was produced at the same time as Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets; all three comedies were released into UK cinemas over two months.[5][n 1]

The screenplay for Whisky Galore! was written by Compton Mackenzie and Angus MacPhail, based on Mackenzie's own novel; he received £500 for the rights to the book and a further £1,000 because of the film's profitability.[7] Mackendrick and Danischewsky also worked on the script before further input from the writers Elwyn Ambrose and Donald Campbell and the actor James Robertson Justice, who also appeared in the film.[8] 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.[9][10] The plot underwent some modification and condensation from the novel, with a lot of the background removed; in particular, much of the religious aspect of the novel was left out, with the novel's Protestant Great Todday and Roman Catholic Little Todday being merged into the single island of Todday.[11]

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.[12] Alastair Sim was offered a lead role within the film, but turned it down, to avoid being typecast as "a professional Scotsman".[13]

In May 1950 the British Film Institute's monthly publication Sight & Sound estimated the film's budget to be around £100,000 (£3,572,000 in 2019 pounds[14]).[15] The following month, Balcon wrote to the magazine to complain that "Your estimate of the cost is wrong by more than a thousand or two". He also stated in his letter that the film "over-ran its budget by the unprecedented figure of 60 per cent to 70 per cent".[16]


The film was shot on the island of Barra in 1948, with a unit of 80 staff from Ealing, although many of these were inexperienced because of filming by Ealing Studios on other works.[17][18] The summer of 1948 brought heavy rain and gales and the shoot ran five weeks over its planned 10-week schedule and the film went £20,000 over budget (£714,000 in 2019 pounds[14]).[17] There was tension which led to disagreements between Danischewsky and Mackendrick during filming, including a difference of opinion concerning the moral tone of the film. Mackendrick sympathised with the pompous, high-minded, but spoilsport attempts of Waggett to foil the looting, while Danischewsky's sympathy lay with the islanders and their removal of the drink.[19] 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!"[10]


Balcon disliked the film and his initial thought was to cut its running time down to an hour and classify it as a second feature.[20] He did not provide Mackendrick with another directoral role, but assigned him to second unit work.[21] Another of Ealing's directors, Charles Crichton, added additional footage at Ealing Studios and re-edited the film; this version was the one released into cinemas.[22]

Mackendrick was not satisfied with the final film and thought it looked like an amateur work. Danischewsky later called the film "the longest unsponsored advertisement ever to reach cinema screens the world over"; the whisky producer The Distillers Company later presented those associated with the film a bottle of whisky each, given at a dinner at the Savoy Hotel, London.[23]

Release and reception[edit]

Whisky Galore! was released into UK cinemas on 16 June 1949;[24] the film was financially successful.[25] It was released into the US in December that year,[24] though because of restrictions on the use of the names of alcoholic drinks in titles, the film was renamed Tight Little Island.[26] In France, the film was retitled Whisky à gogo; the name was later used as that of a discothèque in Paris.[27]

Critics warmly praised Whisky Galore! on its release.[28] The reviewer C. A. Lejeune, writing in The Observer, considered it "a film with the French genius in the British manner",[29] while the reviewer for The Manchester Guardian thought the film was "put together with ... tact and subtlety",[30] and Henry Raynor, in his review for Sight & Sound magazine, called it "one of the best post-war British films".[31] Several critics identified the script as 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.[30] 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".[29]

The acting was also praised by many critics; Lejeune wrote that the actors portray "real people doing real things under real conditions",[29] 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".[32] The reviewer for the Manchester Guardian considered Radford to have 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 two or three names for special praise".[30] 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 also considered the rest of the cast strong.[33]

The film surprised many at Ealing Studios for the level of popularity it gained in the US, where it became the studio's first to achieve box office success.[28] For Crowther, "the charm and distinction of this film reside in the wonderfully dry way it spins a deliciously wet tale".[33]

Whisky Galore! was nominated for the British Academy Film Award for Best British Film, alongside Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets, although they lost to The Third Man (1949).[34]


In 1958, Rockets Galore, Mackenzie's sequel to Whiskey Galore, was adapted and filmed as Rockets Galore!, directed by Michael Relph. Danischewsky provided the screenplay and several of the personnel who filmed Whisky Galore! also worked on Rockets Galore![35][36] Whisky Galore! had an influence over later Scottish-based films, including The Wicker Man (1973) and Local Hero (1983).[10]

In 2007 the film was adapted and staged at the Nottingham Playhouse.[37] In June 2016 a remake of the film was premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Eddie Izzard played Waggett and Gregor Fisher took the role of Macroon.[38]

The film was remade in 2016, with release in the UK in early May 2017.


  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'".[6]


  1. ^ Aldgate & Richards 1999, p. 155.
  2. ^ Perry 1981, p. 111.
  3. ^ Duguid et al. 2012, p. 137.
  4. ^ Sellers 2015, pp. 146–147.
  5. ^ Barr 1977, p. 80.
  6. ^ 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.)
  7. ^ McArthur 2003, p. 20.
  8. ^ McArthur 2003, p. 26.
  9. ^ Duguid, Mark. "Whisky Galore! (1949)". Screenonline. British Film Institute. Retrieved 29 November 2016.
  10. ^ a b c Romney, Jonathan (24 July 2011). "Another Shot of Scotch on the Rocks with a Splash of Wit". The Independent on Sunday. p. 42.
  11. ^ McArthur 2003, pp. 16–18.
  12. ^ Duguid et al. 2012, p. 107.
  13. ^ McArthur 2003, p. 34.
  14. ^ a b UK CPI inflation.
  15. ^ "The Front Page". Sight & Sound. 19 (3): 103–104. May 1950.
  16. ^ "Whisky Galore". Sight & Sound. 19 (4): 182. June 1950.
  17. ^ a b McArthur 2003, p. 24.
  18. ^ Sellers 2015, p. 149.
  19. ^ McArthur 2003, p. 27.
  20. ^ McArthur 2003, pp. 27–28.
  21. ^ Sellers 2015, pp. 182–183.
  22. ^ McArthur 2003, pp. 24, 27–28.
  23. ^ Sellers 2015, pp. 151–152.
  24. ^ a b McArthur 2003, p. 81.
  25. ^ Sellers 2015, p. 51.
  26. ^ Fidler, Jimmie (23 November 1949). "Jimmie Fidler in Hollywood". The Joplin Globe. p. 12.
  27. ^ Doggett 2016, p. 353.
  28. ^ a b Sellers 2015, p. 151.
  29. ^ a b c Lejeune, C. A. (19 June 1949). "Tipping a Winner". The Observer. p. 6.
  30. ^ a b c "New Films in London". The Manchester Guardian. 18 June 1949. p. 5.
  31. ^ Raynor, Henry (April 1950). "Nothing to Laugh At". Sight & Sound. 19 (2): 68.
  32. ^ "Whisky Galore (1948)". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 16 (181–192): 117.
  33. ^ a b Crowther, Bosley (15 January 1950). "In Blythe Spirits". The New York Times. p. 1.
  34. ^ "Film: British Film in 1950". British Film Institute. Retrieved 5 October 2016.
  35. ^ McArthur 2003, p. 100.
  36. ^ "Rockets Galore (1958)". British Film Institute. Retrieved 7 December 2016.
  37. ^ Hickling, Alfred (10 February 2007). "Review: Theatre: Whisky Galore! Playhouse, Nottingham: 2/5". The Guardian. p. 44.
  38. ^ Macnab, Geoffrey (5 July 2016). "A Toast to Whimsy and Nostalgia". The Independent. p. 41.


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