The Top 20 Scottish Films (1-10) by Brian Pendreigh

18th September 2001

braveheartScotland’s contribution to world cinema has been huge, from the charismatic presence of Sir Sean Connery to the star warrior antics of Ewan McGregor, from John Grierson, the father of documentary film, to Robert Louis Stevenson, whose Jekyll and Hyde have provided the premise for dozens of films. But they are all individuals. How do we fare when it comes to Scottish films?

There are more than you might think, making it no easy task to choose just 20. This list takes a very literal definition of the term "Scottish film". The films on the list are all feature films, set in Scotland. The vast majority filmed here, at least in part, though one or two created versions of Scotland in studios beyond our borders. Many have been made by directors from Hollywood and England, though Bill Douglas and Bill Forsyth blazed a trail for indigenous talent in the Seventies, and an increasing number of productions have been instigated in Scotland, or by Scottish producers, since the release of Shallow Grave in 1995. Ten years ago the list would have looked very different, which can only be a good sign.

1 Braveheart (1995: director Mel Gibson)
Scotland lent Hollywood its history, and Hollywood gave it a "creation myth" in return. William Wallace may have been a national hero, but no one had heard of him outwith these shores before American writer Randall Wallace came on holiday to Scotland and saw his surname on a statue at Edinburgh Castle. He decided oor Wullie might make a good subject for a film and elicited the support of superstar Mel Gibson. So what if they tweaked the odd historical detail? They produced a rousing piece of entertainment, that compares favourably with the epics of Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston. Few remained unstirred by the battle scenes and grown men were seen to weep at those final harrowing scenes. "Every man dies; not every man really lives." Politicians talked about the "Braveheart factor" and Scotland voted itself a parliament.
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2 Trainspotting (1996: Danny Boyle)
If Braveheart gave Scotland a belief in itself, it was Trainspotting that made the country positively cool. The film-making troika of Boyle, Macdonald and Hodge turned to Irvine Welsh’s cult novel for their follow-up to Shallow Grave. His portrait of a sordid Edinburgh that American tourists never see might have made for a heavy, depressing movie, but the film-makers capitalised on the black comedy and honesty of the book. Although the film does not glamorise drugs (far from it), neither does it fob the audience off with platitudes. "People think it’s all about misery and desperation and death... but what they forget is the pleasure of it," says Renton, one of cinema’s greatest, and most articulate, anti-heroes, brought to life in a career-best performance by Ewan McGregor. "Otherwise, we wouldn’t do it. After all, we’re not f***ing stupid."
Read The Wolf's review of Trainspotting


3 Whisky Galore! (1949: Alexander Mackendrick)
"A happy people with few and simple pleasures," says the opening voice-over, as nine children appear, one after the other, through a crofthouse door. Commentators have dismissed Mackendrick’s comedy about the islanders of Todday as stereotypical, patronising and tame, but it is outrageously funny and highly subversive. In attempting to salvage 50,000 cases of whisky from a grounded ship, a criminal Celtic brotherhood outwit the English Home Guard captain. Mackendrick, a Presbyterian with a strong work ethic, fell out with producer Monja Danischewsky over the latter’s romantic vision of a remote community fighting foreign interference, but Danischewsky got his way and his vision was encapsulated in the American title Tight Little Island. Novelist Compton Mackenzie was inspired by the grounding of the SS Politician off Eriskay, but it was only because Ealing was full that cast and crew made the long trip to shoot on location on Barra, adding greatly to the film’s character.

4 The 39 Steps (1935: Alfred Hitchcock)
Hitchcock’s Scotland, like that of Brigadoon, was a Scotland that existed largely in its creator’s imagination. Fugitive Robert Donat does make a daring escape on the Forth Bridge, but on the other side he finds himself in the middle of the Highlands, a suitably barren and sinister landscape. John Buchan’s novel is a great old-fashioned yarn about a man on the run from foreign spies and the police, who wrongly suspect him of murder. He must clear his name and save the nation at the same time. But in Hitch’s hands, it is much more. The scene in which a woman’s scream turns into the whistle of a train is a landmark of early sound cinema, while Hollywood has come up with few sexier moments than that in which Madeleine Carroll attempts to remove wet stockings while handcuffed to Donat.

5 Local Hero (1983: Bill Forsyth)
Bill Forsyth became a one-man Scottish film industry with That Sinking Feeling and Gregory’s Girl, low-budget comedies, with teenage actors and little in the way of budget. For Local Hero, he recruited a Hollywood star and retreated to the Highlands. Burt Lancaster plays the head of an oil company that wants to buy land for a refinery, but changes his mind when he sees it. The film attracted the same sort of criticism as Whisky Galore!, and the carping was equally misguided. Forsyth builds stereotypes only to undermine them - the Highland idyll shattered by a low-flying jet, the remote wee village whose minister is black, and, most memorable of all, the meal in the hotel that turns out to be the bunny rabbit Peter Capaldi had rescued from the roadside.

6 The Wicker Man (1974: Robin Hardy)
Yet another film that focuses on a remote Scottish community, though The Wicker Man is a true one-off, a unique blend of horror and musical. The distributors released it as the bottom half of a double bill, but it went on to become a cult classic. Edward Woodward flies to the island of Summerisle to investigate an anonymous report of a child’s disappearance. The upright policeman is shocked to discover a people obsessed with sex, and suspects the missing girl has been the victim of human sacrifice. The islanders, who include Britt Ekland and Christopher Lee in a kilt, burst into song at every opportunity, which simply adds to a feeling of unease. Schoolgirls dance naked in Lee’s Garden, and Ekland’s nude body-double memorably gyrates against a bedroom wall. The only glum character is Woodward’s. Very unnerving. Hugely enjoyable.

7 Gregory’s Girl (1981: Bill Forsyth)
What Rebel Without a Cause was to disaffected LA youth in the Fifties, Gregory’s Girl was to pimply Scottish teenagers in the Eighties. America had James Dean and Natalie Wood; Scotland had John Gordon Sinclair and Dee Hepburn. And the amazing thing is it worked. Gregory (Sinclair) is the hopeless goalie in a hopeless school team, Dorothy (Hepburn) is the girl who comes into the side and proves a star. Gregory makes awkward overtures towards her. And no one ever played awkward better than John Gordon Sinclair, except James Dean. But this is awkward with the death wish replaced by a rich vein of quietly-understated, self-deprecating humour.

8 The Bill Douglas Trilogy (1972-78)
Douglas’s autobiographical trilogy holds a unique place in Scottish cinema, the only indigenous work that compares with European arthouse classics. The first instalment, My Childhood, presents a sparse portrait of a boy, Jamie, living in poverty in a Scottish mining village in the Forties. He is starved of food and affection, living with his half-brother Tommy and an elderly grandmother. A man, who may be Tommy’s father, gives them a canary, but the cat eats it, and Tommy beats the cat to death. Douglas depicts his world without sentimentality and with little dialogue, leaving the audience, like his protagonist, to work out what it means. My Ain Folk and My Way Home continue Jamie’s story through to adulthood, national service and some hope of a better future.

9 Highlander (1986: Russell Mulcahy)
Reviled by critics, Highlander inspired a cult following, three sequels, and live-action and animated TV series. Frenchman Christopher Lambert plays Conner MacLeod, one of a race who are (virtually) immortal and must battle each other through the centuries for no other reason than "there can be only one". Sean Connery is his Egyptian-Spanish mentor. The action jumps between modern New York and 16th Century Scotland, an amalgam of swashbuckler and urban thriller, exploiting, for all it is worth, the Hollywood stereotype of noble Highlander, splendid in designer tartan, marching off to war across the causeway of Eilean Donan Castle. Loud, flashy and intellectually empty, Highlander is unadulterated trash. But it is also great fun. And those scenes where Conner’s wife ages, and he remains the same, and Freddie Mercury sings "Who wants to live forever?" are heart-breaking. Which would you rather watch repeatedly Bill Douglas or Highlander?

10 Brigadoon (1954: Vincente Minnelli)
New Yorker Gene Kelly gets lost in the Highlands, stumbles upon a village that appears only once every 100 years and falls for one of the villagers, signing "Almost Like Being in Love" along the way. He returns to America, but ultimately love brings him back to Brigadoon. Producer Arthur Freed shot his musical on an MGM soundstage in Hollywood after touring Scotland and failing to find any locations Scottish enough for his requirements. On the face of it this seems outrageous, but his failure to find Brigadoon in Scotland really is the whole point of the film - Brigadoon is Scotland the Fantasy and can exist only in the imagination and in Hollywood. It is escapism in a very literal sense.

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