When 2017’s Whisky Galore! featuring Eddie Izzard released in cinemas, people were quick to inform me that it was a remake, a remake of an extremely popular post-war comedy. After having my ignorance firmly corrected, I think it is time for a little comparison of the two!
Whisky Galore! (1949)
What a happy, rebellious and free-spirited post-war movie this is.
The jovial inhabitants of a tiny, insignificant island off the coast of Scotland have their lives rattled when their supply of whisky runs dry during World War Two, and fall into a state of listlessness. But as fortune would have it, a ship ferrying a cargo of whisky collides with the island and the townspeople make a move to loot it. But when a stiff British military officer arrives on the island, their plan could be foiled.
For such a popular film, certainly in the UK (and it has 100% on RT) it was surprising that I hadn’t heard of it until the remake made its appearance (I guess there is a use for remakes after all!) and for a post-war black and white movie, Whisky Galore! is a lot of fun!
Directorial debut of Alexander Mackendrick, who would go on to helm another classic The Ladykillers in 1955, and based off the novel of the same name by Compton MacKenzie was filmed in just three months and all on location. It was an expensive movie at the time, but proved extremely popular upon release.
Looking at it now, one might be forgiven for thinking it is a simple story, but to properly gauge its themes you have to remember that upon release in 1949, war-time rationing was still in effect. A film about local folks bucking authority and using guile and initiative to grab themselves some free whisky, would have been immensely fun!
And fun it is, even today. The film has several key characters that it crams into its eighty-minute run time, from the islanders, their family returning from the war and the military officers mixed into the events. In the middle of all this is Basil Radford’s character Captain Waggett, an Englishman who sets an early precedent of antagonising the humble islanders by erecting a roadblock, believing Nazi forces would bother with such a tiny island.
Waggett is an interesting character and easily the most fleshed out and conflicted. He is doing his job, the definition of “stiff upper-lipped”; as he sees it, the townsfolk could be looters during wartime and as the only officer, he makes it his duty to stop them. But one man cannot possibly stop over a dozen sharp-minded men and women from getting precious whisky, can he?
Even when he calls his superiors, who are far too busy with real issues, about the shipwreck they only ask: “Have you saved some for me?!” He is a great comedic foil for everyone else’s rebellious indifference and dogged determination.
It is an incredibly simple premise, but has no real cliches bogging it down. A film about people wanting just a little bit of happiness after trying times, about authority bowing down to that want just a little bit. It has some great moments of camaraderie too, such as the older townsfolk attempting to jump an officer who then simply let’s them by calling it “training”. Or a fantastic montage of hiding whisky about the town, with some great energetic performances from older actors. The movie had me laughing aloud. You’d be hard pressed to not find it at least charming, with its Scots and Gaelic banter and demeanor. The music too adds to the humour and expressions of the actors.
Sometimes the editing felt a little too frequent; scenes were often short and had no time to set a tone or character, but as the film progresses the characters easily flourish as they should. It is a short movie and would likely only get better with repeated viewings!
A fun, lighthearted experience that reminds us that we shouldn’t bog ourselves down with duties and life’s hardships. We all need to take time for ourselves.
Whisky Galore! (2017)
A strangely unnecessary remake, while still with its charms it can feel clunky at times.
When a small whisky-loving town of islanders run out of it during the distant events of World War Two, they have a stroke of luck when a ship runs aground off their shores. The ship is carrying 50,000 crates of whisky, and the islanders look to take it for themselves if they can dupe a visiting army Captain set to prevent looting.
Almost immediately, the remake of Whisky Galore! has a different tack. To compare it to the original is to invite the term “show, don’t tell”, with the 2017 version feeling somewhat padded with dialogue designed to tell the audience what to think. Our islanders are fresh out of whisky and while 1949 sought to give us a mood and have our characters in mourning (whether for the passing of a friend, or the lack of whisky, who knows!) this film straight up has a line of dialogue, delivered like a postmortem: Oh, they are all sad because they don’t have their whisky.
The film even goes so far, several scenes later, as to address what “Sabbath” is, with characters asking and answering.
This more clunky writing style is not without provocation in the modern world, but it doesn’t stop us asking the question: Why remake this film at all when the original was so relevant at the time but not now?
The acting is good across the board though, despite the expository dialogue, Gregor Fisher as Post Office worker Macroon and comedian Eddie Izzard as the fallible Captain Waggett. Izzard gives the role a lot of energy, although the characterisation feels a little more toady than simply stiff upper lipped-ness. He is good fun to watch (as a fan of his comedy bit) but Basil Radford is a tough performance to follow! But speaking of performances to follow, it is like they found the same actress for the zealously Religious Mrs. Campbell! Uncanny.
It is, for the most part, the original film again but with a new lick of paint, which is somewhat disappointing; there’s no need. While I’ve not read the book it is based off, this film does have a new story element missing from the original. A new character, Mr. Brown is visiting the island and desperate to get a crucial item that is also stowed away on the wrecked ship. Michael Nardone and Gregor Fisher have several scenes that focus on this storyline, but it didn’t feel relevant, it just removes the focus from the islanders and Captain Waggett who have nothing to do with it.
It is a nice movie and does have some funny moments. Something of a twee, easy going movie which in today’s society is dispensable and momentarily distracting. But some of it feels clumsy compared to the original’s straight-forward dedication, which is ridiculous for a remake, a remake that would be struggling for relevance to begin with.
But, it should be said… if it weren’t for the remake, I never would have sought out the original!