When I studied film in a small town in western Sweden, I lived out in the countryside. On clear nights, I took a stroll sometimes out to a nearby field to escape the lights and just stand there and stare up into the immense starry void. It was a powerful experience and I felt almost as if I was removed from whatever trivial worry I had. I saw Local Hero when I was a teenager and it spoke to me, the way Peter Riegert’s character lifts his eyes and sees something beyond his own existence. When I revisited the film, the same feeling lingers.
MacIntyre (Riegert) works for an oil company in Houston, Texas. He’s chosen to represent the company in Scotland during negotiations to acquire the whole area where there is now a village, Ferness, and build a huge refinery in its place. MacIntyre knows that he was selected because of his name and the connections that everybody thinks he has, but his ancestors were actually Hungarians who picked a name they thought sounded American. When he arrives in Aberdeen, he meets a few local representatives of the company and heads out to Ferness together with one of them, Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi).
After finding a rabbit along the way, they check in at a local hotel and realize that the owner, Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson), is not only that (and a bartender) but also the lawyer they will be negotiating with over the future of Ferness…
No need for sermonizing
Director Bill Forsyth was clearly inspired by the old Ealing comedies, but also the Hollywood musical Brigadoon (1954), and the way Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger fused comedy and magical realism; there was also a Scottish village in their I Know Where I’m Going! (1945). In subtle ways, Forsyth delivers an environmental message in Local Hero. There’s no need for sermonizing; all he has to do, along with cinematographer Chris Menges, is to come up with stunningly beautiful shots of the Scottish countryside and coastline and tell a story where the visiting American slowly becomes a part of the scenery while waiting for the villagers to make up their mind.
What’s unusual is that even MacIntyre’s boss knows right from the start that the refinery is unlikely to happen; he just needs his representative to look up into the sky and then report back to him what’s going on, just so he’ll be certain what to do. How on earth Felix Happer ever got rich remains a mystery, but Burt Lancaster makes a memorable character out of him; several scenes involving a therapist who works in unorthodox ways reveal a deep lack of satisfaction within the oil tycoon. That’s an amusing part of the script, but Forsyth is actually pretty serious about it; other scenes show how Happer and MacIntyre are close to being twin souls, men who search for a deeper meaning and find it outside the busy atmosphere of Houston and the oil company.
There’s a New Age danger alert here, but I can totally relate. Its quirky sense of humor adds to the charm, and makes the director’s attack on capitalism look adorable as the villagers start fantasizing about what to do with all that money – and that’s where the realism also comes in, ironically, because these people are living in a “paradise” but dream just as much as MacIntyre and Happer about a more meaningful life.
An even bigger hit than the movie was Mark Knopfler’s music score, his first for a movie, and I couldn’t imagine the film without it. The theme, titled “Going Home”, is a wonderful crowd-pleaser. The Dire Straits guitarist puts a personal touch on the entire, well-balanced score and really knows how to evoke that sense of awe as we stare into the sky.
Local Hero 1983-Britain. 111 min. Color. Produced by David Puttnam. Written and directed by Bill Forsyth. Cinematography: Chris Menges. Music: Mark Knopfler. Cast: Peter Riegert (MacIntyre), Burt Lancaster (Felix Happer), Fulton McKay (Ben Knox), Denis Lawson, Norman Chancer, Peter Capaldi.
Trivia: An asteroid called 7345 Happer is named after Lancaster’s character.
BAFTA: Best Direction.
Last word: “Looking back, you’d hardly credit it, but I didn’t want music. I was a bit of an egghead about film: I was of this puritan streak that if you had to put music in it then you had, somehow, failed. I am proud to admit I was very, very wrong. Mark’s [Knopfler] music helped make the film and I am very, very grateful to him. Plus, it wasn’t one of those deals you often get with the composer, where the first inkling they get of the film is after it’s made, in some grotty studio in Soho. Mark, because we’d wanted him to be involved with the ceilidh music – he wrote all of it, in the end – was on set, around, getting the feel, talking to the locals, picking up the atmosphere.” (Forsyth, The Guardian)