With the space of thirty-five years, Bill Forsyth’s gentle eco-parable feels more seductive than ever. Whimsical is a word often applied to Local Hero, but one shouldn’t mistake that description for its being soft in the head, excessively sentimental or nostalgic. Tonally, in terms of painting a Scottish idyll where the locals are no slouches in the face of more cultured foreigners, the film hearkens to both Powell and Pressburger (I Know Where I’m Going!) and Ealing (Whisky Galore!), but it is very much its own beast.
Indeed, a more direct inheritor of the tradition of Whisky Galore! might be Waking Ned, where the principals’ gentle lifestyle is juxtaposed against sudden incident (or excitement). Incident isn’t really on Local Hero’s mind. It’s all about wry observation. But where culture-clash comedy is usually predicated on broad laughs (Crocodile Dundee, Coming to America), Forsyth’s approach is consistently low key. As Pauline Kael noted in her review, “There are no payoffs to gags; you get used to some oddity and then it disappears”.
The premise is an easily recognisable one: how the promise of wealth changes an impoverished community. But Forsyth operates a subtle push-pull with this, such that the locals, led by Denis Lawson’s multi-hyphenate hotel owner, accountant and village spokesman Urquhart, unquestionably place attachment to profit over their quality of life – from an outsider’s perspective of an unspoilt idyll, rather than scrubbing to make ends meet (it’s only Fulton Mackay’s beachcomber and eventually revealed beach owner Ben who proves an obstacle to a foregone conclusion).
In contrast, Peter Riegert’s American exec MacIntyre, sent on a mission by Knox Oil to purchase Ferness, finds the change of pace and view from Houston a positive balm, ever more beguiling as he gradually sheds his suit and sinks into a more sedate perspective on life. He is, essentially, caught by the bug that has his boss Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster), who conducts all the necessaries of big business but really only cares about the stars (and duly gives Mac instructions to report back on any phenomena in the Scottish skies).
Forsyth isn’t making out the wily locals to be innocents or particularly enviable. The teenagers just want to get out, irrespective of money, and various comments and looks suggest such dubious prospects as numerous potential fathers to a local baby and unwanted attentions from an older male companion walking a young woman home from the pub. Urquhart is as cold-blooded business wise as they come, and further still, he cooks up pet rabbits on a whim. Who knows how enraged the inhabitants might have become, had Happer’s helicopter not intervened on their march to Ben’s beachfront shack.
The local colour makes the film, mostly via residents of the location who were seconded to acting duties, be it through Mac suggesting an amended version of a boat’s name plate or a discussion of the benefits of a Rolls Royce over a Maserati. Every character is impeccably drawn and cast, however.
Peter Capaldi – also to be seen on irrepressible form with John Gordon Sinclair, down the pub, in a period interview on the Blu-ray release– is a “big, floppy gooney-bird” endearingly besotted with Jenny Seagrove’s ethereally-wise, web-toed marine biologist Marina; Urquhart’s wife, played by Jennifer Black, is contrastingly called Stella, but Forsyth insists the sea/stars allusions escaped him when naming them. Capaldi, of course, has since proved unstoppable, although Steven Moffat nearly did for even him, while Seagrove, mystifyingly, fell for the elusive charms of renowned diner Michael Winner and had to work with William Friedkin.
Lancaster is peerless, naturally; just as well, since the (relatively) weaker part of the film relates to his character being provoked by psychiatrist Moritz (including leaving very rude messages on his office windows). This subplot is there to evidence Happer’s lack of fulfilment, but one can’t help feel there might have been a better way to get this across, even given Norman Chancer’s suitably deranged performance as the shrink.
Happer’s communications with Mac are a delight, though, and then, when he eventually arrives in Ferness and meets up with Mackay, there’s a sense of a meeting of minds who have their priorities right, despite their entirely polar value system; while it isn’t as if Happer denounces big oil, the “softcore environmentalism” of establishing an observatory and an oceanographic institute leaves everyone happy… Except maybe Mac.
The new commentary on the Blu-ray release finds Mark Kermode chatting to Forsyth, and I have to admit, I found it a bit of a disappointment. Sporadically interesting, there’s far too much of skiffle-prone critic announcing every aspect is “brilliant”. Apart from, curiously, Riegert, whom he neglects to mention at all. The actor also receives no acknowledgement in the separate interview with Forsyth. Did he rub people up the wrong way?
Whatever the situation, the importance of his contribution to Local Hero really can’t be underestimated. As Mike Sarne commented in The Film Year Book Volume 2, “So normal is he… he succeeds in bringing Local Herodown from the clouds where it wafts Brigadoon-like, poised on the edge of song, teeming with potential fairy folk and loveable apple-cheeked denizens of Disney. If it hadn’t been for Peter Riegert’s seemingly thankless part, the audience might well have pursed their lips at the saccharin of whimsy, web-footed mermaids and heavenly choirs that Bill Forsyth offers up”.
Sarne’s overstating it a wee bit, as the picture isn’t remotely as shamelessly benign as he suggests, but it does seem that Riegert has gone unfairly unthanked. Kael commented of Mac that “He’s the butt of Forsyth’s humour, and at the same time he’s the person we empathise with”. I think that’s because Riegert shows restraint and moderation, such that Mac never comes across like a fool or an idiot; he’s simultaneously slowly seduced and also diffident and detached. Even as he gradually unwinds over the course of the film, it’s a subtle thing, since he isn’t really that highly strung in the first place (more listless yet not realising; again, some of the Houston conceits and stabs at humour don’t quite land, but his easy manner is consistent throughout).
The other aspects of Local Hero that require a mention are Chris Menges photography – I’ve only had the opportunity to see this in fairly grotty transfers previously, and it’s quite a star attraction, particularly the night filming, the Houston sections of which suggest nothing so much as a Michael Mann movie – and Mark Knopfler’s gorgeously evocative score (which he’s reworked for a stage musical version). Indeed, while Forsyth clearly came on in leaps and bounds between Gregory’s Girl and this in terms of technical application – he admits he even needed to be persuaded to agree to two different main locations, shooting the beach on the west coast and the village on the east coast – his BAFTA for direction while Menges and Knopfler were passed over feels like a glaring omission (on the other hand, it’s difficult to argue with the two actual winners in those categories).
It’s worth mentioning a couple of the other extras on the Film 4 Release, both contemporary to the production. Getting In On The Action, A National Film School “making of” that interviews residents of Pennan – between seventy and eighty remained, from a thousand at the turn of the twentieth century – including local fishermen, a school master and a retired Shell Oil executive. The latter bought the village when land values were rock bottom just after World War II, having originally intended to secure only a croft farm.
There’s also a South Bank Show that provides much David Puttnam input, and notes how Local Hero was turned down everywhere (Rank, EMI, US studios) on the basis of being too gentle, with too little confrontation and everyone being too nice. Forsyth appears grateful for the producers’ criticisms – Puttnam notes how the opening is much more truncated than it would have been – and suggests that, left to his own devices, Local Hero would have been much more indulgent and less watchable. The marketing side is also interesting; while they were wise not to go for the Carry On Up The Bagpipes poster, I’ve never felt the one they did choose was that great, and surely didn’t help mitigate the picture’s relative failure. But Putnam, ex ad guy, liked it, over the protests of others assembled (“Does it tell you anything and bring you into the cinema?” asks one of the gathered).
It’s notable too that the original ending was blunter, shy of offering the hope that Mac’s return home wasn’t the end for his dalliance with Scotland; instead, we cut to the singular beachfront phone box ringing, as he presumably attempts to make contact. Although the alteration was at the instigation of American backers, Forsyth admitted it’s a better choice.
The sad thing is, this was probably the director’s peak moment in terms of commercial and critical acumen; after Being Human (a decade later) he couldn’t get arrested. So much so, he had to succumb to a Gregory’s Girl sequel. Local Hero remains one of the best British comedies of that era, and like Withnail & I, its initial lack of success has given way to the status of a beloved classic, one that eschews the obvious but gains potency and longevity through having no doubts about its desire to be different.