Scotsman 200: Inspiration and talent caught on film

A scene from Trainspotting. Picture: PA Photo/Polygram/Liam Longman.
A scene from Trainspotting. Picture: PA Photo/Polygram/Liam Longman.
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To mark the 200th anniversary of The Scotsman, we are dipping into our archives to bring you a selection of some of the biggest stories of the last two centuries. This month we have recalled Scotland’s arts scene, reproducing The Scotsman’s original coverage of many of the most memorable events from the stage and screen to exhibitions, concerts and Edinburgh’s festivals. Today we look at some of the most memorable films with links to Scotland. When Whisky Galore – the original – was shot on Barra in 1948, Scotland did not have the reputation is does today as a sought-after filming destination. Scotland’s film industry has evolved dramatically since then and the 1990s bore a couple of the more notable blockbusters. Historical inaccuracies aside, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart was a hit in 1995 and in 1996 Trainspotting brought Edinburgh author Irvine Welsh’s bestseller to life.

Thursday, 16 June, 1949

“Whisky Galore” Compton Mackenzie’s Novel Screened

By Our London Film Critic

When the film studio folk of the English studios make a periodic migration northwards, we are too painfully aware of the wasted journeys they have made. This time, however, Ealing Studios have gone to Barra, have filmed, and have conquered. They have given us the screen version of “Whisky Galore” by Compton Mackenzie, and in doing so have succeeded in giving us this year’s second worth-while British screen-comedy – the first was “Passport to Pimlico,” from the same “stable.”

As one who has not yet read Compton Mackenzie’s book – I seem to be the only Scot in London who must admit to such an incomplete education – I have little reason to doubt that the film version has achieved a successful metamorphosis of the novel.

Compton Mackenzie, with the help of Angus Macphail, wrote the screen play. The cast is predominantly Scottish, and the characterisations are perfect, capturing the dry tongue-in-cheek humour of the Western Islander.

Compton Mackenzie’s story concerns the acumen displayed by the folk of the island of “Todday,” when a whisky-laden ship is wrecked off their shores. Before she sinks, good care is taken that more than a “wee dram” is conserved for the islanders’ own use.

Their subsequent efforts to retain the spirit, despite the machinations of an overzealous Sassenach Home Guard commander, makes the most hilarious screen fare. And the fairy tale is tinged with credibility, for Mackenzie tells us that during the recent war a ship was wrecked off the Western Isles, with a similar cargo. But there, he claims, the coincidence ceases.

The people of Barra contributed in no small measure to the making of this film, for it was shot almost exclusively on that island.

Rarely has there been a more effective use made of local folk and local scenes than here. One can rejoice, too, for an abundance of talent displayed by James Robertson Justice, Jean Cadell, and above all Basil Radford as the perpetually nonplussed Home Guard officer.

Saturday, 19 September, 1964

“Goldfinger” is magnificent entertainment

The latest James Bond film, “Goldfinger,” is expected to be even more successful than “From Russia With Love.” It probably will be, too. It is magnificent entertainment, fast, furious and enormously exciting, technically very clever and with a gusto of realistic implausibility that makes its own rules.

The story, as every Ian Fleming fan knows is about Bond’s foiling of an ingenious plot to take over and neutralise (by atomic means) the U.S.A.’s gold bullion reserves in Fort Knox. The film sticks closely to the novel and has got something of that slightly mocking flavour which gives a tang to the original. It does not take itself too seriously.

Whatever happens, Bond will endure and eventually get his man. He will also get his woman, and in this film there are some very glamorous ones, not excluding the Lesbian-inclined Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) with whom at the end he unexplainedly survives a spectacular plane crash.

People used to get rather disturbed by these Fleming yarns, with their glossy blend of violence, sex and sadism. But they are really just grown-up fairy stories, with a lot of authentic detail.

Bond is a giant killer brought up to date. Whether Sean Connery fills the bill is another matter. He has the physique, but his Bond is portrayed as a mid-Atlantic, classless tough, on whose lips Commander Bond’s more laconic remarks and bounderish knowledge of high life sound unconvincing.

Friday, 8 September, 1995

Alas, poor Wullie

Don’t believe the hype. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart is too long, simplistic and rides off in the wrong direction, says Angus Wolfe Murray
Wallace creeps through the forest in Braveheart (15), with bow at the ready, arrow cocked.

Twigs snap beneath his feet. A hind lifts her head, sniffs the air, continues grazing. There is someone stalking him with a flashy fat sword, while another scurries through the bracken.

Is this the ambush where Wee Wullie invents kickboxing? It doesn’t matter because that deer hasn’t moved and it’s supposed to be wild. Later, after he has become Public Animal Number One at the English court and King Edward foams at the beard at the mere mention of his name, the Princess of Wales finds herself in a deserted cottage in enemy territory, unchaperoned, for a tryst with the Beast.

She’s a Gallic scorcha, married to Ed’s eldest, a gay girl who slinks in silk, eyeing the handsome house guests. Sexually unbroken, she finds the wee man’s reputation a pant-dampener, although, when it comes to it, he goes all soft focus on her.

History students are advised to leave their brains in their other jacket. Mel Gibson’s Che McVara has as much to do with the price of eggs as Star Wars with Cole Porter’s socks.

Wallace was an educated man in an age of almost universal illiteracy, a leader who inspired the ragged, warring clans of Scotland in the late 13th century to unite against their colonial oppressors. Mel plays him like Detective Riggs, with a heavy metal haircut and face paint.

He speaks Glaswegian without torturing his cheek muscles and wears the kilt high on the thigh while riding. It’s a star performance, which means Richard Gere in First Knight, plus charm.

The film is an hour too long, as well as deeply flawed in the credibility dept. Gibson, the director, can’t keep his finger off the slo-mo button. There’s even a shot of horses’ hooves, sloshing through mud, at quarter speed, and endless sword- throwing slowdowns.

The early stuff of boyish memories, first love, return to the ruined croft, childhood sweetheart reunion, courtship and secret marriage drags on and on. Only in the action scenes does Mel claw it back and these, it must be emphasised, are violent, uncompromising and energetically choreographed.

The lousy weather, dirty plaids and dour locals have a more genuine look about them than the stagey geriatrics and undernourished kids of Rob Roy, although as movies there is little comparison. Braveheart turns legend into historical romance, while Rob Roy concentrates on adventure, with a script that draws blood.

The politics are confusing. Robert (pre-spider) the Bruce appears ineffectual and weak, dominated by his dad, played by Ian Bannen as the Wicked Witch of the West.

The Scots nobles, a bunch of conniving wafflers, bribed with land and titles by His English Nibs, are with him, or not, depending how the money’s blowing. By comparison “the wee scrapper” is pure as driven peat, refusing the Scottish crown, although accepting a knighthood, God knows why, while mouthing tosh, such as, “They’ll take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom.”

The Scots army behave like footy yobs, howling “Wall-ace! Wall-ace! Wall-ace!” and whipping up their kilts to moon at the opposition. When the whistle blows, the two teams race at each other across a field, screaming incomprehensible obscenities, and, just when they should be knackered, initiate GBH with clubs, swords and pointy sticks. After one disastrous set-to, during which Wullie’s left in the lurch by the tartan toffs, he goes on a revenge spree that resembles Friday 13th: Part Zillion.

As a piece of fiction, this is no less simplistic than A Fistful of Dollars.

Gibson’s skill behind the camera has dissipated since his directorial debut, The Man Without A Face, and his acting suffers from the need to carry the movie. “If you die, it will be awful,” the princess breaths. “Every man dies,” Wullie retorts. “Not every man lives.” That’s another thing. The script by Randall Wallace (no relation) should be flung, torn and mortared.

Saturday, 3 February, 1996

Spotting a major film opportunity

By Lynn Cochrane

The title of the film had been kept a secret, yet the tickets sold out two weeks in advance. The only hints were a series of obscure clues posted weekly at the entrance to the cinema.

Around the time when most people are spilling out of local pubs and heading for home, a 250-strong army followed the tantalising trail to the Cameo in Edinburgh on Thursday night.

A cluster of determined film buffs who had not managed to get a ticket sat slumped on the floor of the foyer, hoping that someone would not turn up to take their seat.

Outside, friends discussed their suspicions about the unnamed film which had intrigued them enough to draw them from warm flats and bedsits.

Pointing at clue number two – where James Osterberg meets Van Gogh – one said: “James Osterberg is Iggy Pop’s real name and the film about Van Gogh was called Lust for Life. That’s one of the main songs in the film.”

Solving the third clue was proving problematic. “It says 1892-1975. I think that might be the time that Leith Central Station was standing,” one man said. His pal had another suggestion: “Is it something to do with Hibs reforming?”

The pulsating beat of rave music had barely started before the applause exploded throughout the hall.

The word Trainspotting in white against a black background flashed up on to the screen - their suspicions had been confirmed. The small throng of enthusiasts had managed to secure a seat at the world’s first paid screening of the film version of Irvine Welsh’s powerhouse of a novel.

From the first dramatic shot of two emaciated junkies sprinting down Princes Street pursued by two store detectives, to surreal images of the anti-hero, Mark Renton, diving head first down a faeces-filled lavatory pan to rescue his morphine suppositories, the audience was captivated.

Punctuated by the bleakest and blackest of humour, the film showed drug addicts shooting up in the slums of Leith and dealt with cot death, casual violence and underage sex.

The book, which has been hardly out of the best seller list since it was published, has been condemned for glorifying drugs by daring to suggest that articulate young people might shoot up because it is fun. The criticism found no supporters in the cinema audience.

Matthew Brown, 22, described the film as “amazing”.

He said: “It was great and ended up showing both sides of the picture and swaying your emotions about pretty effectively at the same time.”

For more from our archives, visit The Scotsman Digital Archive.