Local Hero was Bill Forsyth’s third film as writer and director and his first to move beyond working with the Scottish Youth Theatre (though the connection is not entirely forgotten, with John Gordon Sinclair and Caroline Guthrie having minor but amusing roles). It stars Burt Lancaster, in a typically graceful role, though the film actually belongs to the unlikely duo of Peter Reigert and Denis Lawson, the latter of whom doesn’t even get billed as a star.
Like Forsyth’s first two films, the story is about, and largely takes part in Scotland, in the fictional fishing village of Ferness on the West coast. Knox Oil, a big American company owned by Felix Happer (Lancaster), plans to build an oil refinery in the only suitable place, Ferness. ‘Mac’ Macintyre (Reigart), a skilled negotiator, is sent to buy the place, everything between both headlands and up to a mile inland.
Mac is your fish out of water, complaining from the outset at having to actually go to Scotland: he calls himself a telex man (seriously dating the film or what?) and that he could wrap up the deal in an afternoon by telex. In Aberdeen he finds local Know representative Danny Oldsen (a young and fresh-faced Peter Capaldi) wished upon him as an assistant. They also meet and admire, Oldsen especially, a marine biologist named Marina (Jenny Seagrove in a dark-blue swimsuit).
The pair drive westward to Ferness. Forsyth adds a Brigadoon touch, having the pair stuck in mist after hitting a rabbit with the car (Oldsen names it Harry, Mac Trudy, after his ex-, and whilst they think they’re nursing it back to health, they end up with it being served to them as Casserole de lapin). After a night in the car, in the mist, they wake to a beautiful coastline and clear air. The nod to the magical village, which is accessible only once a year, sets the tone for the externally idyllic village, set in a place of immense beauty, and gives us expectations that Forsyth will quickly puncture.
You see, this tine, enclosed village, this home to families whose roots in the land go back centuries, this backwater of peace and stillness, where people do all that’s needed and time ceases to be a concern, can’t wait for the Americans to buy them out and make them stinking rich.
That’s the central joke of the film, and one that negates the traditional tension that stories of this kind tend to portray. Mac and Oldsen book in to the hotel, run by Gordon (Lawson) and Stella Urquhart (Jennifer Black), a married couple with a healthy appetite for each other that, in keeping with Forsyth’s approach, is treated as a semi-comic, semi-admirable joke. Gordon also turns out to be the Chartered Accountant Mac’s here to negotiate with, playing things cool on behalf of the village, who all want the money: Gordon’s just doing everything he can to make sure that they squeeze out everything they realistically can, rather than undersell themselves.
But it all takes time, and that’s the point. Mac begins as the fish out of water, chafing at having to work to Scottish pace, with nothing realistically to do except to hang around and wait, and gradually let the atmosphere of Ferness seep into him. His problem becomes that Ferness is unspoiled, that he is there to spoil it irrecoverably, that he doesn’t want to see that happen, but that the villagers want it passionately.
Typically, Forsyth throws in a Russian fishing boat captain, Victor (Christopher Rozycki), a regular and celebrated visitor, not to mention a closet capitalist whose portfolio Gordon manages, to remind Mac that the villagers lead a hard life, that the money he represents is a godsend to them, making life incredibly easy for them, and that at the end of the day they have the right to make decisions for themselves. Mac remains troubled however. He even offers to swap lives with Gordon: Gordon can have Houston, the Porsche, the salary and the stocks, Mac will have Ferness. And Stella, of course, don’t forget Stella.
I’ll come back to Stella, and Marina, and Caroline Guthrie’s part, but the story demands a twist. We’ve been expecting all along, because there’s always one in real life, and stories like this demand one to make them into stories as opposed to still pictures, but with everything going swimmingly, Gordon discovers the hitch; the beach itself, four miles of seafront, is owned by old Ben, the beachcomber, Ben Knox to give him his full name. Ben is played by Fulton Mackay, the third named star, in gently obtuse bucolic manner. And Ben won’t sell. There has to be one.
Ben’s attitude is that he needs to work the beach for its benefit, and it is his living. The idea that the money he could make by selling it would make him secure for the rest of his life doesn’t seem to penetrate. Not need to work: We all have to work, he chides, gently.
We’ve already had the nod to Brigadoon, and without being in any way explicit we’re being invited to see Ben in a mythical light too, a protector of the beach, its guardian. He’s not the only figure we’re invited to see in such a subtle light: Marina keeps popping up out of the water, in ankle to neck wet suit, appearing to the faithful and besotted Danny. She’s proposed a marine biology study for the bay, and is convinced Mac and Danny are there to study its financial aspects. Even after Danny confesses about the refinery, she’s blithely convinced it won’t happen. And, like the water goddess we’re meant to see her as, she has webbed feet.
Everything’s being set up for a fairy-tale ending. Mac has a second task, direct from Felix Happer himself. Happer’s obsessed with astronomy and his legacy (which is played on in an unfortunately weak and unfunny strand in which his psychiatrist practices humiliation therapy). He wants a comet to name after himself and wants Mac studying the skies in Scotland. Mac starts off ignorant and bemused, but ends ignorant and enthused by the sight of meteor showers and the Aurora Borealis, the latter of which triggers the film’s denouement.
Again, there’s a gentle hint towards the mythical. Ben’s refusal to sell threatens the whole deal. The villagers start to converge on his beach hut at eve: give them pitchforks and flaming torches and the place could be Castle Frankenstein. Something bad could happen, but not in this film. Enter Happer, Burt Lancaster, arriving by helicopter, literally the deus ex machina, which means ‘the God in the machine’.
Happer’s here to see the skies Mac has raved over, and to talk to Ben, Ben Knox. We don’t get to hear that talk but when Happer emerges, the onshore refinery is dead. An astronomical institute instead. The gangling Oldsen seizes his chance to push Marina’s proposal, inverting the whole prospect: a happy ending. Ferness will remain unspoiled, there’ll still be money in it, though we sense that that will be less all round than for the refinery. Oldsen will stay on with Happer to plan things, Mac is sent back to Houston. That day. Danny, the non-swimmer, commits an act of propitiation, swimming out to greet his goddess with the glad tidings of her worship (though she promptly dives beneath the water).
The ending is deliberately downbeat, with a comic twist that is never more than wry. Mac, who’s come to love Ferness, is wrenched away. We sense it will be his Brigadoon: once gone, he can never return. Clean-shave, suit-and-tie, refusing a private farewell with Stella, helicopter, plane, return to his empty, modern, cold apartment in the Houston night: it’s overbearingly miserable which makes the last touch – the Ferness phone box ringing unanswered, impliedly Macs call – too slight to overcome the melancholy.
It’s not that the ending is bad: like the irony of the title, which makes the ultimate stranger Mac, who isn’t even of Scottish extraction despite his name, the ‘local’ hero to the villagers of Ferness, the ending is an ironic inversion of the theme: the village is not spoiled but Mac is. Completing the under-structure of myth, Brigadoon has been saved. Mac is the sacrifice that preserves the way things should be.
Watching Local Hero the first time, I eagerly expected more of the fun I’d had out of Gregory’s Girl, but these are two different films. Forsyth is dealing with adults and a much more adult situation, and whilst there’s a mild comic inflexion to much of the film, especially in the background, the humour aims more for irony than out and out laughs. The film’s deliberately slow, which sometimes, especially in its American sequences, drags. I’ve already mentioned the abusive psychiatrist, Moritz, which is a crashing mistake, and I’ve got to be honest and say that I don’t find Peter Reigart convincing, especially in his voice: for an American, his American accent sounds like a bad attempt at faking it. Reigart’s lack of energy plays true to the overall feel of the film, but given what he is, it’s unconvincing, especially in the American segment, at the beginning. Reigart has no dynamics, which detracts from his absorption into the life of Ferness less impressive: he comes over as ready for a rest, making the village’s quasi-mythical conversion of him less impressive.
I said I’d return to the ladies, MesDames Seagrove, Black and Guthrie. Watching the film this time, I was struck at just how much a male-dominated film it it (and by extension Forsyth’s first two films are). Apart from a middle-aged shopkeeper with an implied relationship with Victor, these are the only female roles of any note in the film and Guthrie (who was Carol in Gregory’s Girl) has a minimal part as the village’s spiky-haired punk girl who tries to get off with Danny at the ceilidh.
So that leaves two women. Of the two, Seagrove gets the better deal, as the biologist-cum-water goddess. The lady was a beautiful young woman, long hair, clear blue eyes, a slim figure, but she’s out of the loop as far as the story is concerned. With the exception of a few seconds in a lab-coat, and a slightly longer scene in a beautiful gown, she’s only ever seen in swimsuit or wet-suit, in the water. Seagrove looks lovely, plays otherworldly, and after her introductory scene, interacts with nobody but the gangly, inexperienced Danny (Capaldi makes him into a miracle of loose-limbed unco-ordinated movement, a gem of a performance).
And Jennifer Black gets even less. She’s ever better than a background figure, cool, composed, always fully in control, but she’s nothing to do with the story, despite a last minute attempt to portray her as the Boss. All Stella has to do is stand around, looking pretty, at which she excels, with a natural understated charm that shines through big cardigans and ankle-length practical skirts.
Whereas Seagrove’s Marina was always intended to be a slightly unrealistic character, the film does fall down in failing to capitalise upon Stella, or indeed offering any kind of substantial female role, even though it suspends itself between two very masculine cultures.
So: a film mostly of parts that, for me, never quite wholly coalesce. Still, I wouldn’t get rid of Local Hero, even despite its bloody soundtrack, lauded by many but not me because I mostly cannot stand Mark Knopfler. It was the third of four Scottish films by Forsyth, that led to David Puttnam taking him to Hollywood and basically crashing his career terminally. I think this film stands testament that, limited as it sounds, Forsyth was at his best as a Local Hero.