It’s almost frightening to realize that some films, TV shows, and record albums I first enjoyed as a young person have now existed for 30, 40, or 50
years. Time marches on. But it stands still, in a very real way, throughout Local Hero, my favorite film comedy of all time. Written and directed by Bill Forsyth, it was released in the U.S. in February, 1983, thirty-five years ago this week.
To repeat: it is my favorite film comedy–and I love a lot of film comedies, reaching back to the silent era. But somehow, from the moment I first stumbled upon it while channel hopping, and found it on HBO or some such channel back in 1984, this film affected me like no other has,
before or since. I missed perhaps the first fifteen minutes or so that first time, catching sight of two characters stopping on a remote road in the Scottish Highlands to care for an injured rabbit. Being obsessed with all things Scotland anyway, and seeing that the rabbit didn’t seem hurt at all, I settled in to watch the rest…
Forsyth began as an editor for documentary films, which led to the creation of his first two quiet comedies, using small budgets and unknown actors.
The first, That Sinking Feeling, from 1979, is a quirky little story, for which Forsyth recruited young acting students in Glasgow as his cast, and shot on 16mm film, entirely on location. The plot follows a group of unemployed misfits looking for adventure and cash, deciding to plan the theft of stainless steel sinks from a warehouse, and then sell them, somehow.
Forsyth’s next, and better-known film, the wonderful Gregory’s Girl (using many of the same actors), offers the story of a shy, 16-year-old student, Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) a mediocre soccer player infatuated with Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), the new–and unmistakably female–star of the team. This is where Forsyth hit his stride.
Then came Local Hero, with the backing of producer David Puttnam, whose Chariots of Fire had just won a truckload of international awards. He was a good ally for Forsyth to have when trying to sell his latest work.
As the film begins, we meet “Mac” MacIntyre (we never learn his first name), a young, ambitious executive for Knox Oil & Gas in Houston. His specialty is acquiring properties around the world for the company to build its oil drilling sites, refineries and storage units. Mac gets excited one day upon hearing that the eccentric CEO of the company, Mr. Happer (Burt
Lancaster) wants to see him in the executive suite. Happer has decided to send Mac to Scotland to purchase part of the northern coast, including a small fishing village, Furness. It is during this classic first meeting that Mac learns of some of Happer’s quirks, such as his fascination with astronomy. The boss demonstrates how he can convert his office into a functioning planetarium, to indulge his fascination with the night sky. His dream is to discover a comet and have it named after him, so he takes pains to show Mac which portion of the northern sky to look for comets when he’s in Scotland.
Once there, Mac meets Johnny (Peter Capaldi), his Scottish counterpart from Aberdeen, whose social awkwardness masks his knowledge of the oil business. The two descend upon Furness, expecting to meet resistance from the villagers, considering how their town would be fairly obliterated to make way for the Knox complex.
They meet with Gordon Urquart (Denis Lawson), the local attorney/innkeeper/bartender, who undertakes the negotiations. But isn’t long before Mac begins to find himself awed by the beauty of the scenery, and by the pure, simple lives of the town’s inhabitants. His business-like demeanor (and suit) soon give way to friendly chit-chat and more causal dress (a lesson for writers and filmmakers on how to show a character’s development without using dialogue). He even manages to develop a crush on Gordon’s beautiful wife, Stella, and, as he marvels at the quiet night
sky, is mesmerized by the sight of a meteor shower, and later, his first aurora borealis, prompting him to race to the town’s phone box and excitedly call Happer with his eyewitness report. Johnny, meanwhile, falls for a beauty as well, a company oceanographer (Jenny Seagrove) who just might be a mermaid.
To Mac’s surprise, the villagers are all for selling their properties for the big money Knox is offering, regardless of what it would to do to Furness. Ironically, it is Mac and Johnny who find themselves regretting the deal. But unexpected developments await. I won’t give any more away, for those of you poor souls who have yet to experience this truly magical film.
Within minutes into that random first viewing of mine, Forsyth’s comic style became apparent, and very appealing to me. Unlike the brash, often crude American film comedies that tend to rely on gags involving drinking binges, sex, and/or various bodily functions, Local Hero (and all of Forsyth’s comedies) carries an unmistakable dignity about it. His “Scottish trilogy” films, including 1984’s Comfort and Joy, are fairly quiet movies, and the humor is subtle, but all are also genuinely very funny and–in a word often used by reviewers of his films–charming.
What else does Local Hero have going for it, other than the screenplay (I own a copy of an early draft, and can attest to the brilliant improvements Forsyth made along the way), its spot-on cast, the gorgeous cinematography, the gentle, exquisite musical score written and performed by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits? Well, how about this: After following Mac’s visit to Furness, the film concludes with a closing shot that, to me, is the most perfect, most beautiful closing shot I’ve ever seen in a film. If it doesn’t bring a happy tear to your eye, check your pulse.
In 2003, the town of Pinnan, where most of the village scenes were filmed, hosted a special viewing of the film, to commemorate its 20th anniversary. Forsyth attended, and spoke briefly to the crowd, who expressed their appreciation for his masterpiece, and his respect for their tiny hamlet on the sea.
P.S.: When my wife Karen and I were on our honeymoon in Scotland in 1997, Pinnan was, of course, one of the stops we knew we had to make.
Until next week…