It’s a brave film director who takes on the task of re-telling an iconic story, but Gillies MacKinnon’s adaptation of Whisky Galore! deserves a seat beside the old greats, writes Charles MacLean.
What do Chariots of Fire, Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero, Trainspotting and The Angels’ Share have in common? They are all iconic Scottish movies. But perhaps the most iconic of all is Whisky Galore!, Alexander Mackendrick’s 1949 interpretation of Compton Mackenzie’s best-selling novel of the same name, first published two years earlier and still in print.
It’s a bold man who would attempt a re-make of such a film, but it has been done and was premiered as the closing event of the Edinburgh Film Festival 2016 on 26 June. I am pleased to say I was charmed by it, as was the audience – indeed I would go so far as to say it deserves to join the ranks of the iconic films listed above.
Before I saw the film I asked Gillies MacKinnon, its director, whether it was not a bit risky to attempt a re-make of such a well-loved movie – critics are bound to compare it with the original. He gently pointed out to me that it was not a ‘re-make’, it was a ‘re-imagining’ of the plot.
‘The events which inspired Compton Mackenzie really happened,’ said MacKinnon. ‘The S.S. Politician – named S.S. Cabinet Minister in the book – really was wrecked off the coast of Eriskay in February 1941 carrying over a quarter of a million bottles of whisky, bound for the USA. The local community really did salvage much of the cargo, against the wishes of the authorities, and really was pursued unnecessarily vigorously by the government, H.M. Customs and the police. They really did believe they were doing no wrong in “liberating” the cargo, and thought it pure madness to blow it up, as was the authorities’ intention.’
In Mackenzie’s tale, the man leading the authorities’ hunt for the shipwrecked Scotch is Captain Waggett [played by Eddie Izzard in the 2016 film], a soldier hell bent on contributing his part to the war effort overseas by bringing the S.S Cabinet Minister's looters to justice.
‘In truth, it is the stuff of fable – the perennial story of a united community putting itself against officialdom and authority – and as such has resonances the world over’ says MacKinnon. ‘The purpose of the film is to tap into that international sharing and genuinely entertain a world audience with a popular tale that is universal.’
Cause for celebration: Gregor Fisher as storekeeper Joseph Macroon
The script was written by Peter McDougall, winner of four BAFTAs, including a Lifetime Achievement Award (2008), and the only British screenwriter to have been awarded the Prix Italia (for his film Just Another Saturday). He is in complete sympathy with MacKinnon and treats the story as a fable.
Much as Mackenzie does – the fly-leaf of the first edition of his book calls it ‘an uproariously funny story…which gives full scope to Mr. Mackenzie’s hilarious wit’. In reality, the events which surrounded the ‘liberation’ present a grimmer picture. As Arthur Swinson remarked in his book Scotch on the Rocks: The True Story Behind Whisky Galore (1962): ‘…faced with these extraordinary circumstances, the rash became rasher, the drunken more drunken, the avaricious more avaricious, the convivial more convivial, the generous more generous, the treacherous more treacherous, the selfish more selfish, the commercial more commercial.’
MacKinnon’s ‘re-imagining’ of the story as a fable necessarily avoids the grim reality associated with the historical events – and rightly so. His and McDougall’s treatment of the tale, broadly, as a comedy, is also in keeping with the spirit of the original. One of the hall-marks of the ‘iconic’ films mentioned above is the uniquely Scottish brand of humour that imbues them – understated, witty, touching – even while treating of serious subjects.
‘I was not looking for slap-stick; I wanted the humour to be played straight,’ MacKinnon told me. Indeed. One (un-named) critic remarks: ‘… He finds humour in almost any subject, so that his work, at once serious and witty, is invariably marked by a light touch.’
Another writes: ‘Consistently adventurous in form and theme, the best of MacKinnon's films exemplify that most elusive of creatures: an inventive, entertaining British art cinema.’
Director Gillies Mackinnon and Gregor Fisher share a joke during filming
I asked him how he became involved in the film. ‘The whole project is the brainchild of Iain MacLean [the film’s producer], who I have known for 30 years,’ he explained. ‘He began to plan the “remake” – his words – 14 years ago; I joined his team eight years ago. It was only his tenacity and commitment that has brought it to fruition. It is almost impossible in Britain today to raise the finance for a mid-budget movie, but he managed it: private finance, a minor miracle!
‘Iain is a Gaelic speaker from Lewis and obviously our hope was to shoot the film in the Outer Hebrides, where the ship was wrecked. This proved to be impossible, on account of budget constraints, but then we found Portsoy, the charming small port on the Moray Firth, which was perfect – indeed it worked like a studio set, with the key locations of pub, schoolroom and post office all on the harbour front. The local people were keen to get involved as extras. The whole shoot had the feeling of a big family affair.’
This view was supported by Gregor Fisher, who plays the leading role as Joseph Macroon and who I had a quick chat with before meeting Mr. MacKinnon. When I asked him what it was like working on the movie, he simply said: ‘It was the best run shoot I have worked on in 40 years.’
The PR minder was now making ‘wrap’ signals, indicating that my 10 minutes with MacKinnon were over. ‘I would be in default of my duty to a whisky website if I did not ask your views on Scotch,’ I said.
‘I was born and raised in Glasgow,’ he replied, ‘so have had a lifetime’s contact with whisky. I love it, but generally only drink it with old friends. I find it often makes people over-emotional! I would say that Johnnie Walker Black Label and one of the smoky Islay malts are my favourites.’
Let the last word come from Duncan MacInnes, who was a 15-year-old boy on Eriskay when the ship went down, and whose personal account of Whisky Galore!, recorded by MacLean, appears on the film’s website. He concludes: ‘The strange thing about the whisky from the Politician was that nobody ever had a hangover in the morning, always that devil-may-care feeling.’