In the year 1943, the world was at war and to make matters worse, supplies were low. This was bad for the residents of one Outer Hebridean island for one reason in particular, apart from the lack of food and other essentials, and that was because a very important part of their community had been deprived. The region was populated by very religious, austere folk who did not bother with such fripperies as going to a dancehall or cinema - there was not one within a hundred miles of Todday, which is where our story takes place. What they took their greatest pleasure in, then, was the Water of Life, which was served in the local public house...
That being whisky as the title suggests (though Americans had the name Tight Little Island forced on the movie since censors prevented any alcohol mentioned in titles), in what was based on a true story of a shipwreck off the coast of the island of Eriskay, though a title card is at pains to point out this is a work of fiction (sure, of course it was). This was an early international hit for Ealing Studios, possibly because it portrayed Scots as rather quaint and obsessed with whisky, much as they were regarded at the time around the world, which offered an interesting tone to the work, as you were given both the outsiders' and insiders' view.
The outsiders were the English who are largely there on Todday on military manoeuvres, with Basil Radford taking the ostensible lead as Captain Waggett, the head of the Home Guard there, but also Customs and Excise men making their presence felt when there is a shipwreck one night. The cargo? Thousands of bottles of whisky, which have the locals salivating at the very idea of that amount of booze in such close proximity to them, so it is that a salvage operation is organised, though not a legal one as the residents want as many bottles as they can carry for their own personal use. Naturally, the authorities are unwillling to let them have their own way, and a battle of wits ensues.
Of course, in 1949 even though the war was over rationing was still very much being felt in the United Kingdom as the nation took so long to recover from the massive expense of the conflict, so the thought of the population getting their hands on an abundance of supplies, especially alcohol, was an undeniably attractive one. As the events play out on the island, we are given a kind of soap opera as there are two marriages planned, one between visiting English soldier Sergeant Odd (Bruce Seaton) and local girl Peggy Macroon (Joan Greenwood) which has overcome any culture clash - er, just about - and then schoolteacher George Campbell (Gordon Jackson) wishes to wed Catriona Macroon (Gabrielle Blunt) against the wishes of his battleaxe mother (Jean Cadell). There's one thing which will surely bring them all together.
And that is in the precarious position of being just about sinking to the bottom of the ocean unless a military-style operation more effective than the actual military is put into play, the distinct anti-authoritarian flavour to the comedy being key to its success. Though even then, there are rules the islanders must abide by, and they nearly lose their chance to secure the booty when the clock on the kirk strikes midnight on Sunday: are we intended to laugh at the conspirators thwarted by their respect of the Sabbath, or with the more religious opinions that God would not tolerate any of this on the day of rest? It's not clear, but perhaps depends on what point of view you took, insider or outsider, the beauty of this being that it was successful either way. That a film with such a sense of fun was such a chore to make, with first time director Alexander Mackendrick threatening suicide as conditions were so bad and the film only really saved by uncredited Charles Crichton in the editing room, was testament to Compton Mackenzie's irresistable story. Music by Ernest Irving (from traditional tunes).