I am proud of my Scottish roots, although I am sorry to say that I have only been there as a child. I will make a promise to make the journey there to return to my homeland. Scotland is often seen in a negative light, from the likes of Trainspotting, to Flith and NEDs. With these films focusing on the downtrodden working classes in an urban setting. However, it is a beautiful country full of natural beauty and lively, friendly individuals who aren’t like anyone else you will find in any other part of the world. There is one film which I believe manages to capture what is charming about Scotland, and its people… this film is 1983’s Local Hero.
At first glance, the story of Local Hero is hardly one that seems to be memorable or worth discussing. A big Texan oil company wants to buy a huge chunk of Scottish coastline at a fishing village of Fernes and a representative is flown over to close the deal. Chosen because it’s thought he is of Scottish origin, McIntyre (Peter Riegert) confesses to a colleague that his parents chose the surname when they got off the boat from Hungary because they thought it sounded American. Reluctantly he heads off to Ferness, joined by Oldsen (ex-timelord Peter Capaldi in one of his first major roles).
At first things seem to go smoothly as we discover that a lot of the locals are all too willing to take the company’s money and leave. But there are complications. One of them is Ben (Fulton Mackay), the cheerful philosopher who lives in a shack on the beach. It turns out that the beach has been the legal property of Ben’s family for four centuries, ever since an ancestor did a favor for a king, and as a result he doesn’t want to sell (and who would blame him?). The local negotiations are handled by the innkeeper, Urquhart (Denis Lawson), but Mac and Oldsen are slowly seduced by the town, and ultimately become wrapped up in its intrigues.
Witnessing the journey from a materialistic Texan yuppie to one who falls in love with the simple things of life and by the film’s end, when Mac returns home, has been changed forever by his trip, will reduce you to tears. It is a simply story about a man who finds himself in the most unlikeliest of places, but that’s why it works, it’s a story which is timeless. The film’s plot regarding oil and an eccentric billionaire (played by Burt Lancaster) could have been a turn off for many, but the film quickly becomes less about the excess of the eighties and the yuppie culture, and instead champions the everyday ‘heroes’. Something which was being pushed out by Hollywood in favour for the heroes of the big budget blockbuster which was beginning to dominate the culture.
Through the use of Chris Menges’ splendid cinematography, which manages to capture the beauty of the landscape, and we see just how easy it is for Mac to fall head over heels in love with rural life. We can clearly see the excessive amounts of time and detail that was carried out in order to locate the best and most suitable locations from the silver sands at Camusdarach and with Pennan on the North East coast doubling as the village.
The camera is used as a character itself, to effectively capture the beauty and awe that we find ourselves in, and it seems both impressive and compact at the same time, nothing is too large, too over the top or forced, it all seems very grounded and real. As director Bill Forsyth stated during an interview, “It was hard for [the cast and crew] not to get into the spirit of the script since we were working in the most magical of locations, “It was hard for [the cast and crew] not to get into the spirit of the script since we were working in the most magical of locations.”
The overall success of the film lies in the script written by Bill Forsyth, (who also directed the classic Brit comedy Gregory’s Girl). He allows his characters to gradually reveal themselves to the camera. He never rushes with the story and allows moments for everyone just to breathe and absorb the scenery. Local Hero never drags and there’s nothing more wonderful to watch then these very human personalities, which Forsyth has so clearly developed with love and humor.
Some of the payoffs in this film are subtle, while others generate big laughs. I discovered upon researching for this article that some of the film’s most memorable moments were improvised. The most notable improvised moment occurs when Mac is chatting with a group of fisherman and nonchalantly asks the parentage of a baby who is present. His inquiry is met by an increasingly awkward silence. It seems so natural and awkward, that it is clear that there is no way this could have ever been scripted.
The film works best in its smaller and more intimate scenes, there is on in particular which springs to mind which is a heartfelt talk between Mac and the innkeeper including a good old glass of scotch, and a scene where the visitors walk on the beach and talk about the meaning of life (no, not the Monty Python film that I have previously discussed…the actual philosophical question). Interestingly, Oscar-winning British producer David Puttman ( who produced the Brit hit Chariots of Fire) told director Bill Forsyth he could raise money for a film set in Scotland if Forsyth could incorporate American characters into the story.
Local Hero initially had a more downbeat end, with Mac sitting bereft in his Houston apartment, isolated and deprived of human contact. However, this was quickly changed once the Warner Bros. started to get feedback from the first couple of previews. Forsyth details how ”Warner Bros. came to me with the suggestion that the ending of the movie was lacking in ‘feel good,’ and suggested that we reshoot it, to the effect that Mac would stay in Scotland and live happily ever after. It wasn’t hard to resist this.” The compromise, while not as forced and overtly a ”happy ending”, is true to Forsyth’s vision while still being warm and charming. It also helped make a red telephone box, prominently featured in the film, a tourist attraction in Pennan.
I may have not had a chance to return to Scotland, but whenever I watch Local Hero, it feels strangely familiar for me. I vow to make the journey back there, and I hope to have the same experience as Mac does in the film. Sometimes in life, you just need to catch your breath and take pleasure in observing the beauty that surrounds you. On first glance, we may be quick to dismiss 1983 as the worst year in cinematic history, but it did give us the wonderful Local Hero.