Sunday, June 28, 2009

PERSONAL FAVES: Whisky Galore!

In 1941 the S.S. Politician ran aground off the isle of Eriskay in the Hebrides. It was carrying 24,000 cases of whisky. For the islanders who headed out to the wreck and conducted an unofficial salvage operation, it was like all of their birthdays and Christmases rolled into one. 24,000 cases of whisky - during a period of wartime austerity! It couldn't happen in fiction. So fiction imitated life and popular novelist Compton Mackenzie promptly appropriate the story. His tale - and the Ealing classic adaptated from it - also deal with the aftermath (Customs and Excise men descending on the island to recover the booze) but omit the less-than-happy real-life ending: the Excise men successful and some of the islanders shipped off to the mainland for prison sentences. Still, when the media seldom lets the facts get in the way of the a good story, why should fiction? Particularly when the story can easily be recast as a celebration of working-class cunning; a big screw-you to the authorities.

If 'I Know Where I'm Going!' provides a heady, romantic take on the myths and mysticism of Scotland, then 'Whisky Galore!' is affectionately satirical. 'I Know Where I'm Going!' is the work of an Englishman and a Hungarian, two outsiders in love with the place; 'Whisky Galore!' was directed by Alexander Mackendrick, an American-born child of Glaswegian parents who left the US for Scotland at the age of seven. An American by birth, a Scot at heart. I've aired the opinion before that these films represent two-thirds of cinema's greatest appreciation of Scotland, with the third being 'Local Hero' (its director, Bill Forsyth, proving the only Scots-born director of the lot); they are also arguably the only good movies ever made which have an exclamation mark in the title.

Clocking in at a scant 80 minutes, part of the charm of 'Whisky Galore!' is its briskness. It zips by, never once threatening to outstay its welcome, and throws out - in roughly equal measure - barbs of satirical humour, good-natured belly laughs, chase scenes, bouts of drunken bravado and a scattering of memorable images. Chief among them, a scene in which a group of locals, the cave in which they've hidden the retrieved whisky targetted by the Excise men, load it precariously onto the back of a rickety old truck and attempt a hasty retreat with the Excise men in swift pursuit. A running joke has the driver labouring over ever-more turns of the starting handle to fire up the engine, the truck spluttering weakly and ticking over so pathetically it threatens to cut out again at any moment. Naturally, when optimum performance from the vehicle is most required, it runs out of fuel. Someone hops out, smashes the neck of a bottle against the sideguard and decants the contents into the fuel tank. The driver runs round the front, cranks the starting handle once and the engine roars monstrously into life. An overhead shot has the driver backing off fearfully as the truck's bonnet, massive in the foreground, judders with the barely contained, new-found power of the engine.

Whisky, it is thus implied, doesn't just make a man of you; it makes your truck run better as well! It's one of those scenes that only cinema can deliver - you couldn't paint or photograph if and it you tried to craft it into words as a story or a poem it would sound ridiculous. And it is ridiculous. Running a truck on whisky! It's probably the only fluid on the planet that's still more expensive than petrol!

However: as random and illogical as that moment is, it fits perfectly into the scheme of 'Whisky Galore!'. As 'Sideways' is a paeon to wine, with a mordantly witty treatise on human relationships floating around in it like a woman in a tequila bottle, so is 'Whisky Galore!' to whisky. The internet and some of the more tabloid-style film magazines are rife with movie-related drinking games. 'Withnail and I' pretty much started it - the simple and potentially liver-destroying rules are absurdly simple: whenever one of the characters takes a drink, the player takes the same drink (the lighter fluid may be omitted). Other versions have developed. James Bond drinking games, for example, stipulate that viewers take a drink whenever 007 uses a gadget, M or Q give him a bollocking, the villain plots world domination or some girl gasps "Oh James".

Can you imagine a 'Whisky Galore!' drinking game? You could have a "sassenach" version, for beginners, in which every onscreen dram is matched (and I'm talking single malt Scotch whisky and no watering it down with soda or lemonade either) in which case you'd probably pass out halfway through the ceildh scene; or an "islanders" version, for the hardcore or suicidal) in which a dram is downed everytime a character says the words "whisky", "uisabaugh" or "slainte" as well. In which case you'd probably die. The Agitation of the Mind does not condone or encourage participation in any 'Whisky Galore!'-based drinking game and accepts no responsibility for any fatalities beyond his own.

What stops 'Whisky Galore!' from descending into whimsy or being overwhelmed by "McScotland" cliches that seem to be lurking just offscreen is how well constructed and how entertaining the film is; and how acidic in its more scathing bits of humour. A voice-over that's pure sing-song in its accent extols the islanders as hard-working people, the selection of images and the intonation of the narrator slyly acknowledging the cliches. "A happy people with few and simple pleasures," the voice-over continues as the montage cuts to a spartan farmhouse, its front door open, out of which a dozen young children emerge. Simple pleasures. Aye, and hockmagandy's one of them!

An expansive cast, the screen time divvied up equitably between them, are introduced and their individual stories established with an economy comparable to John Carpenter's 'The Fog' (which also deals with a coastal community and a ship lost at sea; the horror in 'Whisky Galore!', however, is personified not by reanimated lepers but civil servants who want the whisky back ... the bastards!) There's Sgt Odd (Bruce Seton), visiting the isle of Todday (as in "hot toddy"; geddit?) on leave to propose to sweetheart Peggy Macroon (a radiant and husky Joan Greenwood) and wanting nothing to do with the Home Guard exercises arranged by Captain Waggett (Basil Radford) which are throwing the isle into turmoil and preventing Dr McLaren (James Robertson Justice) from doing his rounds. Then there's Catriona (Gabrielle Blunt), Peggy's sister, who also wants to tie the knot, but with local schoolteacher George Campbell (Gordon Jackson). The problem is George's mother (Jean Cadell), a dour presbetyrian whose response to her grown-up son's assertion of his individuality is lock him in his bedroom over the weekend ("There'll be no church for you, George Campbell").

Mackendrick's portrayal of how religion imprisons the isle, even though whisky, cameraderie and laughter are the islanders' real joys, is the ace up the film's sleeve. It's what gives 'Whisky Galore!' enough bite to elevate it from a diverting example of light comedy to a bona fide classic and one of the jewels in Ealing's crown. In the most telling scene, the islanders are readying to row out to the floundering vessel (the barely-renamed S.S. Cabinet Minister) under the cover of darkness when the church bell sounds midnight. One of them puts down his oars and plods back home, opining that they can't go through with it. Why not? the others enquire. " 'Tis the Sabbath," comes the despondent reply. "Aye," someone else rejoins, sounding like all the life has gone out of them, "the Sabbath."

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