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Local Hero: a modest masterpiece

What is the first thing that springs to mind when I ask you about the connection between a red phone box in the Scottish highlands, a crackpot oil multimillionaire from Houston, and a jaded and cynical negotiator who ends up trapped between the two colliding worlds? Some of you may think I’m mad to suggest that these unlikely characters can ever be connected, but those of you over a certain age might be able to guess at what unites this trio: David Puttnam’s classic film Local Hero. Indeed, it’s this strange collection of loveable characters, the traditionally-rooted soundtrack, the stunning scenery of the Scottish isles, and the message of the film itself that resonate with the audience. The result is a film which I believe we should all learn to love. 

Originally released in 1983, the concept of the film has evolved from a book written and edited by both Bill Forsyth and David Grieg into an upcoming musical that was supposed to premiere at The Old Vic  in June 2020, having previously premiered at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh last year. If you’re not familiar with the film, allow me to give a little synopsis of what goes on. It proceeds as follows: Texan oil magnate Felix Happer (played by the late icon Burt Lancaster), when not napping during board meetings, brainstorms the idea that a small Scottish fishing village would be the perfect acquisition for his gaudy, capitalistic company Knox Oil and Gas. It’s decided that a company gofer should be sent out to talk to the locals in the remote village – they’re “not in a third world situation” with Ferness after all – ultimately choosing to send in cynical MacIntyre (played by Peter Riegert) due to his connections to the country to garner local support and close the deal. Even within the first ten minutes of the film, Forsyth’s wry use of irony for comedic effect and subtle character development begins to take shape: Mac himself is not, in fact, Scottish. Instead, it is revealed that his Hungarian parents chose the name when they arrived in the country because they thought it “sounded American.” 

Upon his arrival in the “old country”, Mac is met by Daniel Oldsen (the incomparable and incredibly young Peter Capaldi) – a wet-behind-the-ears junior from the Scottish branch of Knox – who ends up accompanying the American through a tartan-clad micro-culture of Scotland. Together, they encounter characters such as the charismatic yet coy Publican-slash-accountant-slash-hotelier Gordon Urquhart (played by the dashing Denis Lawson), his ever-randy wife Stella, the seemingly impenetrable marine biologist and mermaid-like Marina (played by Jenny Seagrove), and the capitalistic Soviet fishing boat captain Victor, who comes to visit the village to check on his investment portfolio occasionally. His star-studded lapel might suggest one thing, his proud statements surrounding the western trappings he’s accrued over the years suggest another. Each character encountered is just as idiosyncratic as the last, but all are lovable to the audience in their own idiosyncratic way.

Whilst it may seem a startling claim to make, I’d argue there isn’t another 80s British film that can lay claim to having such a unique, lasting and deep-seated affection as Forsyth’s modest masterpiece – and modest it is, considering that it was shot entirely on a shoestring budget of £3 million. Compare this to other films of the time such as Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life from the same year which, although being a box office success, seemingly fails to capture the affection of the audience in a similar manner to that of its predecessors. 

Whilst Python (1983) was deemed to be a box office success, Local Hero was not given the same accolade – having a limited theatrical release in America at the time and making over $5.9 million at the box office (around $15 million today). It’s this that makes it an underdog film –- it was never destined to be up there with the action thrillers at the box office – but it still went on to bloom on VHS and DVD, gaining a cult following since. Up in the sky somewhere, there’s even an asteroid named after the film’s zany, astrology-obsessed oil baron Felix Happer – the 7345 Happer, to be precise. Local Hero is an obscure film, its slow-paced, character-driven ethos very much mirroring that of the life the locals in Ferness lead. Despite this, it overcame the initial theatrical setbacks it faced to leave a lasting impression both at home and further afield. Even the BPI-certified Silver soundtrack, written by Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler, managed to make more in gross earnings than the film itself – resulting in the song “Going Home” receiving an honorary place in the encore at many of the band’s concerts. 

Now, you’d think that this relatively unknown film wouldn’t be one to bring you to the verge of tears by the time the credits are rolling at the end. There’s nothing about it being an emotional film on any review site such as RottenTomatoes (which scored Local Hero a rare 100% rating) or IMDb. If anything, both sites mark out this film to be a comedy with no prior warning that tissues and hankies may be needed by the curtain call. It’s commonly described as being quirky, ‘indie’, easy-going, warming – but weepy? Goodness no. The storyline too does not hint at the emotional turbulence you, if you’re like me, might experience. 

It has been compared to a quieter version of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting: nothing really happens, nothing really occurs throughout the whole film. The first time I watched it, I found myself coming away with no real sense of what I’d just watched. An American goes to Scotland, on what he views as another cold, emotionless business deal, ends up falling in love with the place. His love isn’t meant to last; as soon as he begins to settle down, he is off once again. His stay cancelled at the last minute, he is forced to return to his own reality with nothing to remember his time in Ferness but some shells, a few polaroids, and a pining for a bright red phone box. Nothing major happens, but that doesn’t stop you from falling head-over-heels with the whole thing. The wonderfully eclectic cast, the gorgeous scenery, that one particular scene where a giggly, drunken Mac calls his boss from the aforementioned phone box, excitedly detailing the developing aurora borealis to him. It’s hard not to come away from such a film without feeling as though you’ve learnt something new or gained a new friend. You’re not sure what you’ve learned, but the feeling is still there. 

Despite not really having a clue what to make of it the first time I saw it, I remember for some bizarre reason I felt almost as though I’d gone through a breakup by the end. The older I’ve got since first watching it, the more it feels as though I’m watching the final scenes from Romeo and Juliet.

Having fallen in love with this bucolic paradise, Mac is brutally expelled from his newfound Eden back to the snazzy all-American inferno of skyscrapers, capitalism, tailbacks on the Downtown road, with only seashells and snippets to remember his Caledonian dreamland. It felt as though the viewer went through that separation alongside Mac – we’re with him for the whole film, and by the end of it it’s hard not to feel with him as he grieves for his new lost love. Perhaps again, this is a soppy take on an otherwise unemotional scene, but it’s hard not to relate to the feelings that must be running through his mind.

Simply put, Local Hero is a beautiful film. Although not a box office smasher or a thriller that leaves you on the edge of the seat, there’s something oddly beautiful about it that resonates with you once you’ve left the theatre, or cinema, or turned off your TV.  

Image credits: Arcaion / Pixabay License via Pixabay, Dominika Roseclay / Pexels License via Pexels

Artwork by Wang Sum Luk

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