There was a ship, the S.S. Politician, on its way from Liverpool to Kingston, Jamaica and New Orleans, that ran aground on February 5, 1941 on Eriskay, a Scottish island in the Outer Hebrides. The cargo included some 28,000 cases of whisky, and 145,000 pounds in ten-shilling notes. Most of the whisky, a scarce item at the time, was purloined by pilfering islanders. About 70% of the banknotes were recovered and destroyed by the salvage company and the police. Less than 1% were reported as having been presented at banks. No one knows what happened to the remainder.
Compton Mackenzie wrote a novel about the incident in 1947, and he co-wrote the screenplay for the movie with Angus MacPhail. It was shot on location at Barra, another of the Outer Hebrides, for fifteen weeks in the summer of 1948. It was scheduled to shoot for ten weeks, but there was bad weather in the Hebrides that summer. The picture was made by Ealing Studios. Ealing was a British studio that operated from 1947 to 1957 whose comedy films are still remembered with great fondness today. The producer was Michael Balcon. The director was Alexander Mackendrick, who, though born in the United States, had been taken back to Scotland by his Scottish parents when he was seven years old. This was the first feature he directed, though he had made documentaries and newsreels for the Ministry of Information during World War II. The film was re-edited by Charles Crichton, another of Ealing’s directors. It starred Basil Radford and Catherine Lacey, both of whom we saw earlier in A Lady Vanishes; the beautiful and husky-voiced Joan Greenwood; and a constellation of Scottish actors including Jean Cadell and Gordon Jackson. It was released in 1949.
In the U.S. it was renamed Tight Little Island – it is said there was a rule at that time against using the name of any alcoholic beverage in the title of any film. It was a hit around the world and became Ealing’s most profitable movie.
The film reviewer Leslie Hallowell wrote about this picture: “Marvelously detailed, fast-moving, well-played and attractively photographed comedy which firmly established the richest Ealing vein.” Mark Duguid, the editor of the British Film Institute’s “Screenonline” website wrote, “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.” I think you’ll find this movie is a great deal of fun. Please join me in watching Whisky Galore tonight.