First of all, there is no Ferness, Scotland. It is a fictitious seaside town created by writer/director Bill Forsyth for his 1983 film, Local Hero. It is also a place that lives on in the hearts and minds of moviegoers who were bewitched by its picturesque beauty, eccentric but appealing residents and its tranquil setting far removed from urban blight and the madding crowd. To outsiders, it might look like a slice of heaven, an ideal place to live or revisit. But Forsyth’s film slyly juxtaposes this romanticized environment against the inevitability of progress and creates a gentle culture clash comedy that has far more resonance than you’d expect. It’s not sentimental or cynical but an intoxicating mixture of the wry and whimsical with a bittersweet finish.
Synopsis: Mac (Peter Riegert) is a successful oil company executive who is sent by his boss Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) to Scotland to purchase a small seaside village for oil-drilling purposes. Surprisingly, the local residents are not hostile to the idea of relocating as long as there is a generous financial settlement for them. While Mac is busy with his negotiations, however, he begins to succumb to the charm and natural beauty of the region and begins to have second thoughts about returning to his corporate existence in Houston, Texas.
In the grand tradition of such Scotland based films as I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and Alexander Mackendrick’s Whiskey Galore! aka Tight Little Island (1949), Local Hero invigorated the Scottish film industry and inspired other upcoming regional filmmakers. It also confirmed Bill Forsyth’s promise as a director after the one-two punch of two critically acclaimed movies – That Sinking Feeling (1979), in which some unemployed teenagers come up with a foolhardy get-rich-quick scheme, and Gregory’s Girl (1981), a disarming high school love story, which was the first of his features to receive a wide U.S. release.
Local Hero was the result of a meeting between Forsyth and film producer David Puttnam, who told the director that if he could write a screenplay that was set in Scotland but involved one or two Americans, he could get the movie distributed through Warner Brothers. At the time, the oil industry was searching for drilling opportunities in Scotland, an issue that was constantly in the news, so that became a major plot point.
Puttnam also wanted to make sure Forsyth avoided a dark satiric viewpoint or any obvious editorializing so he had the director screen two films to point him in the right direction – Whiskey Galore and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Forsyth would later state in an article for Cineaste, “I saw [the film] along the lines of a Scottish Beverly Hillbillies —what would happen to a small community when it suddenly became immensely rich?…It seemed to contain a similar theme to Brigadoon, which also involved some Americans coming over to Scotland, becoming part of a small community, being changed by the experience and affecting the place in their own way.”
The cast of Local Hero was mostly composed of relatively unknown Scottish actors such as Peter Capaldi, who had only made one film prior to this – Living Apart Together (1982). For the key role of Mac, Michael Douglas and Henry Winkler were considered but Forsyth was particularly taken with New York native Peter Riegert. As for the character of Happer, the oil mogul, Forsyth always had Burt Lancaster in mind for that part but never believed the actor would accept the role or that he’d be able to afford him.
Lancaster was in the middle of a career renaissance at the time, thanks to a Best Actor Oscar for his work in Atlantic City (1980). Continuing his quest for unique and offbeat roles, the actor fell in love with Forsyth’s screenplay for Local Hero and was particularly fond of the eccentric, star-gazing millionaire who sets the whole plot in motion, even though he wasn’t the main focus. To Forsyth’s amazement, Lancaster agreed to do the film for less than his standard fee.
Having Lancaster on location in Pennan (near Inverlochy Castle in northeast Scotland) was like a dream come true for the local cast and crew. In Burt Lancaster: An American Life, author Kate Buford wrote: “Twenty-three at the time, and in his first movie, (Peter) Capaldi remembered the star mainly…from Birdman of Alcatraz. ‘No one really believed that this Hollywood star was going to appear in our midst,’ he said. ‘And when he did, he exuded such charm and openness that people just fell all over themselves to be around him.’ He was still the old Lancaster, however. He told Capaldi, who speaks in the film…in a distinct Glasgow accent: ‘I gotta tell you kid, you’ve fabulous instinct. But I can’t understand a f*cking word you say.’ He ribbed Forsyth as the director who spoke ‘no known language.'”
Lancaster’s biographer also concludes that there was “a Brigadoon aura about the filming of Local Hero. Lancaster appeared out of the Hollywood sky, telling Tinseltown tales to a rapt audience, picking up checks, answering questions about Birdman of Alcatraz from the locals for whom it was as fresh and vivid as a new release.”
Local Hero received even more praise than Forsyth’s previous Gregory’s Girl, especially in America where the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle awarded Forsyth’s script the Best Screenplay award. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker called it, “A magical comedy by the Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth, who observes the people in the movie as if they were one-of-a-kind creatures in a peculiarly haphazard zoo.” And Todd McCarthy of Variety noted, “Essentially, a comedy about a serious situation, pic is dominated by a constantly surprising sense of whimsicality which never becomes predictable and therefore catches the viewer off guard throughout.”
It is true that Local Hero seems to belong to another place and time and there is a beguiling quality about the setting that makes some viewers want to chuck their current responsibilities and retreat to this magical place (The evocative cinematography is by Oscar winner Chris Menges [The Killing Fields, The Mission]). For this reason alone, Local Hero has developed a strong and loyal cult following.
There is also another side to Local Hero, which is why it has remained relevant after all these years. The film avoids taking sides and making political points but there are warning signs everywhere if you care to look for them – the threat of corporate monopolies, destruction of natural habitats, even the rise of global warming. It is also worth pointing out that the Ferness villagers are much more shrewd and materialistic than they seem on first impressions and that a seasoned businessman like Mac ends up being an exiled romantic dreamer in the end.
Additional trivia: The soundtrack by former Dire Straits member, Mark Knopfler, was also popular and helped launch Knopfler’s career as a film composer. He has since composed the movie scores for such films as Cal (1984), The Princess Bride (1987), and Wag the Dog (1997).
Scottish astronomer Robert H. McNaught identified an asteroid in 1992 and named it “7345 Happer” after the Burt Lancaster character in the film.
Local Hero has been released on VHS and DVD over the years but fans of the film should check out the dual Blu-ray/DVD edition released by The Criterion Collection in September 2019. The extra features include an audio commentary by Forsyth and film critic Mark Kermode, a documentary “The Making of Local Hero” featuring interviews with Burt Lancaster and Peter Riegert, Shooting from the Heart (a documentary on cinematographer Chris Menges) and much more.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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