What is a classic movie? In a world where there have been literally hundreds of thousands of movie productions what gives a particular film the right to enjoy the lofty title of ‘classic’?
I ask the question because my choice of movie this week is something I would never have otherwise watched if it hadn’t been introduced on BBC 4 as being a ‘classic.’ 82 minutes later as the movie of choice ‘Whisky Galore’ reached its conclusion, I was still asking myself the same question.
To all intents and purposes, ‘Whisky Galore’ has the hallmarks of a ‘classic’ film. Shot in 1948 and based on the real-life 1941 shipwreck of the S.S.Politician near the island of Eriskay, the film details the unauthorised taking of its cargo of whisky. The cinematography is wonderfully constructed and in black and white the movie conveys all the character of a post-war film, with lots of images of the beautiful Scottish Islands where the film is set.
There’s also the hugely over-the-top screenplay to go with the movie. With almost every shot an exuberant, if slightly over enthusiastic orchestra fires up to accompany the on-screen action. Then there’s the very loveable cast of eccentric islanders, whose shared addiction to whisky drives them to the extremes of stealing the whisky cargo upon the abandoned vessel. You can see from this strong cast that a number of films have heavily borrowed from this set-up, in particular Local Hero which is often heralded as being a champion (indeed BAFTA award-winning) portrayal of life in Western Scotland.
There’ also the somewhat dated values inherent in both the period and remote region of the film’s setting. Although a rather cruel caricature, you can’t help but laugh and love the portrayal of Mrs Campbell, who is so infuriated by her son’s decision to ask another female character to marry him without consulting her first that she grounds him. When the Home Guard officer Captain Waggett comes looking for him to report for work, she responds curtly
“He's locked in his bedroom with his Bible and some bread and cheese, and he'll not be out until tomorra' morning”.
Yet despite all this, I wasn’t won over by the idea of ‘Whisky Galore’ being a classic. The plot, though funny wasn’t hilarious and there was so little story the movie could easily have been condensed into 45 minutes. The film felt more like an opportunistic take on some wartime nostalgia, which may have been popular in the period of the movie’s release.
I think this poses an interesting question about when a film can be a classic and under what umbrella of reasons. Does a film have to be old, vintage and fun or can the relatively new ‘big-hitters’ of the movie world like Interstellar be considered ‘classics’ too? Perhaps these are too lofty questions for a Monday…