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Edinburgh 2011. The Water of Life: Alexander Mackendrick's "Whisky Galore" (1949)

Alexander Mackendrick's first film, revived!
David Cairns
"To the west, there is nothing, except America."
Revived at Edinburgh Internbational Film Festival, Alexander Mackendrick's first film, Whisky Galore! (released in the USA as Tight Little Island) is regarded as a perennial classic in Britain but not so well-known elsewhere. Inspired by a real-life incident, the wrecking of a ship carrying a cargo of whisky off the coast of a Scottish island where that vital social lubricant had been cut off by wartime shortages, it's an easy-going comedy and in some ways the ur-text behind Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983). 
Even in his modest first film, Mackendrick's indebtedness to German expressionism leads to some rousing sequences, kinetic montages of conspiratorial islanders, who have to circumvent the English home guard official who is determined that the shipwrecked cases of scotch should sink to the sea bed rather than be illicitly salvaged. As with all the great Ealing comedies, the film is crowded with talented and zealous character players, including Basil Radford (part of the Radford and Wayne comedy double act inaugurated in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes) as the English puritan, James Robertson Justice as the village doctor, and Gordon Jackson as a young schoolteacher with a domineering mother, for whom whisky provides the fuel for a definitive break. "It's a well-known medical fact that some men were born two drinks below par," explains the medico.
There's also the divine Joan Greenwood, sultry and throaty-voiced, a svelte rebuttal to the charge that British films were/are devoid of sexuality. Not all of the actors are Scottish and I don't think any save the extras are genuine Hebrideans, but they all produce reasonable facsimiles of the accent and national character.
The movie really got made due to a shortage of studio space: the government had abruptly ordered the film industry to produce more films, and so a location shoot was mandated. Inclement weather led to budget overages and drove the young director to rash talk of suicide, but these unlikely circumstances produced a film of vigor, wit and charm, suggesting that urgency or even desperation might be helpful to British cinema even today. And more than one audience member at Edinburgh's screening of a pristine new print declared their intention of immediately drinking a toast to the movie.


Alexander MackendrickEdinburghEdinburgh 2011Festival CoverageWhisky Galore!
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