Local Hero (1983)
Written and directed by Bill Forsyth
Produced by David Putnam, Iain Smith
Music by Mark Knopfler
Cinematography by Chris Menges
Warner Bros. DVD (1:51)
“We’ve been invaded by America. We’re all gonna be rich!”
One of the best parts of starting another year of college was catching up with my roommate Mike, talking about the movies we’d seen over the summer. Mike had seen a little movie one summer called Local Hero that sounded interesting. I told him I’d try to track it down, but I never did. 35 years later, I finally saw the film. I suspect Mike’s life has been at least a little bit richer for having seen it; mine, a little poorer.
Billionaire Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster), CEO of Knox Oil and Gas in Houston, sends one of his young executives, “Mac” MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) on a mission. There’s a (fictional) village in Scotland called Ferness, a long strip of coastal land Happer wants to buy in order to build an oil refinery. Mac gets chosen only because Happer thinks he’s Scottish (Mac’s parents are Hungarian) and will be able to charm the locals into a deal. Mac would rather conduct business over the phone or by telex. That way he doesn’t have to look at anybody.
Before Mac departs for Scotland, Happer – an astronomy buff, and something of a nutjob – cautions him to watch the skies closely, particularly around the constellation Virgo. Mac wouldn’t know the Big Dipper from The Big Sleep, but he promises to report any unusual activities from the skies. Oddly enough, something about this appeals to Mac. Perhaps it has something to do with not wanting to look people in the eye.
Mac arrives in Scotland and is met by Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi – yes, that Peter Capaldi), the local Knox representative in the area. Oldsen knows the lay of the land, but Mac takes charge of the situation, wanting to get the deal closed as quickly as possible. Problem is, the locals don’t do anything quickly, except, perhaps dream of the many ways they’ll be able to spend their money once Happer buys up all their land. Yet not everyone is excited about the prospect of selling out.
At this point, I know what you’re thinking: “I’ve seen this before, I know where it’s going.” I thought the same thing, but I was wrong. Local Hero takes a familiar plot and manages to avoid every cliché in the book. The film boasts an excellent, well-crafted script (by Forsyth), but the real strength here is character.
The locals of Ferness are not the stereotypes we expect, but rather the kinds of people you’d likely meet if you ever visited the place. A man named Urquhart (Denis Lawson) works as the innkeeper where Mac is staying. Urquhart has other jobs in the area. He’s also the village accountant, the de facto mayor, and more. Everyone has several jobs in Ferness. In speaking to a group of locals, Mac tells them that he’s an executive with an American oil company. An astonished man responds, “You only have one job?”
These people have lived with each other all their lives. Their parents and grandparents probably did as well. They help each other, love each other, and while the promise of a big payoff excites many of them, we wonder if the community will be able to survive after the Knox acquisition goes through. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Mac is talking to Ben (Fulton Mackay) one of the village holdouts, a philosophical beachcomber who wants things to stay just as they are.
Mac: “Look, how much do you want?”
Ben (filling his hands with beach sand): “Would you pay me a pound for every grain of sand in my hand?” (He accidentally drops some sand) “Ah, well, that saves you some. Well, would you do it?”
Mac: “No, of course not.”
Ben: “Ah, well that’s a pity. You missed out on a good bargain, for I can only hold about ten thousand grains of sand in my hands. Did you think it would be more?”
(More on his scene in a SPOILER below.)
The film is low key, but never boring; in fact, quite the opposite. These people are fascinating in a way that real people are fascinating. Although they’ve probably been married for years, Urquhart is still very much in love with his wife and can’t keep his hands off her. The local fishermen have known each other for so long they could probably finish each other’s sentences. A village ceilidh feels authentic, organic and irresistible. I’m not sure how many of these people were real actors and how many were people Forsyth simply asked to do what they normally do.
The film (which features a marvelous Mark Knopfler score) includes several subplots including Happer and his therapist, Oldsen and a young marine researcher (Jenny Seagrove), a Russian seaman (Chris Rozycki), flyovers by military warplanes, and more. You might get the impression that Local Hero is a cluttered movie with too many moving parts, but it’s just the opposite. It’s a funny, contemplative look at both the positive and negative aspects of human nature. It’s a film about simplicity, longing, and just possibly finding. It’s one of my favorite discoveries of the year. It’s currently available on DVD from Warner Bros. both individually and in a set with three other Lancaster films but the film certainly deserves a Warner Archive Blu-ray release. I hope you’ll seek it out.
(SPOILER) If you’ve seen the film, you’ll remember that near the end, Mac is back home in Houston and finds several sea shells from Ferness in his overcoat. It recalls the earlier scene with Ben, a scene which is something of a revelation for Mac. He’s brought back something of Ferness, something more easily grasped and held than sand, but also a reminder of something he has let slip through his fingers. And then we get to the film’s final scene with is achingly beautiful.
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