Whisky Galore! was the second of three films released in 1949 - the others were Passport to Pimlico (d. Henry Cornelius) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (d. Robert Hamer) - which forever linked 'Ealing' and 'comedy' in the public imagination. It also marked the directorial debut of Alexander Mackendrick, previously a screenwriter and storyboard artist on several Ealing films.
Whisky Galore! was adapted by Compton Mackenzie and Angus MacPhail from Mackenzie's novel, itself based on the true story of a famous incident in 1941, in which the SS Politician - whose cargo included 22,000 cases of whisky - was wrecked near the Hebridean islands of Eriskay and South Uist. Dozens of boats from every nearby island soon set upon the wreck, rescuing some 7,000 cases from a watery end.
The novel, and Mackendrick's film, relocates the story to the fictional island of Todday, and is not only a celebration of the islanders' single-mindedness, but a homage to the restorative powers of Scotch, which magically restores a community in deep depression for want of a 'wee dram'. Producer Monja Danischewsky called the film "the longest unsponsored advertisement ever to reach cinema screens the world over."
Despite a difficult production beset by often appalling weather, and a slow start at the English box-office, it became a worldwide hit and Ealing's most profitable film. It is also one of its most fondly remembered, particularly in Scotland. Its success owes much to its remarkable feeling of authenticity: with the exception of Basil Radford and Joan Greenwood most of the cast were Scots, with the extras coming from among the islanders of Barra where much of it was filmed. The constant attentions of the islanders helped the cast to perfect their accents.
Unlike the gentle comedy of Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore!'s humour has an often cruel bite, most of it at the expense of the pompous English Home Guard commander, Waggett (Radford), whose efforts to frustrate the islanders' pursuit of whisky result only in his own undoing.
Waggett's qualities - innocent, decent, not too clever - would have chimed perfectly among the Burgundians of Passport to Pimlico (in which Radford also appeared). But it's exactly these qualities which mark him out as the victim of the wily Todday islanders. The hapless Waggett is comprehensively defeated, and his final humiliation absolute - even his wife bursts into laughter at his fate.