When the people of a small British island recover whiskey from a sinking ship, an uptight government official attempts to ruin their fun. [Dir: Alexander Mackendrick/ Basil Radford, Joan Greenwood, James Robertson Justice/ 80 min/ Comedy/ Britain/ Anti-Taxation]
Wife: “If the salvage people won’t touch it, would it really be so terrible if the people here did get a few bottles? I mean, if it’s all going to the bottom of the sea.” Husband: “That’s a very dangerous line of argument, darling. Once you let people take the law into their own hands, it’s anarchy, it’s anarchy.” So responds the pompous local official, whose expansive view of his responsibility and authority leads him to try to prevent the citizenry in his district from recovering whiskey from an abandoned sinking ship.
As it happens, the people of this small coastal village are desperate for whiskey. Their supply has run out, and with it, so has the meaning of life. With no whiskey to look forward to, sick men give up and die. Others mournfully pass their sad days chatting about how stale life is without it. That is the principal joke in this film, played to good effect—almost everyone in this town is a lush.
So, when a ship is wrecked off the coast with fifty thousand cases of whiskey, the entire town swings into action to recover the liquor. However, the townspeople are opposed in their effort by a local official who objects because the whiskey hasn’t been taxed. He’d rather have it go to the bottom of the sea than for the townspeople to drink untaxed whiskey.
Fortunately, cooler heads prevail. The townspeople recover much of the whiskey in secret, at night. Enraged by such widespread flouting of the law, the arrogant official calls in Inland Revenue (Britain’s equivalent of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service). But the agency is no match for the plucky islanders, who, in one of the more delicious ironies of this film, use their World War II civil defense training to thwart the tax inspectors. Faced with such widespread civil disobedience, the officials finally give up.
Brilliantly directed by Alexander Mackendrick and written with a keen comedic sense, this film is highly entertaining and includes a number of memorable characters. Basil Radford, in particular, is superb as the government official. This is classic British cinema, with an antiauthoritarian edge. I’ve seen this film three times and enjoyed it every time. Also listed as Tight Little Island.