||In 1983, Scottish director Bill Forsyth was riding high on the international success of his hit comedy Gregory's Girl and released his next opus, his conscious tribute to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1945 piece I Know Where I'm Going! In that story, a headstrong young woman played by Wendy Hiller went up North to marry, but found her hardnosed ways softened and tempered by her experiences among the Scots; it has become a cult film for many, not only the Scots, and its themes of finding the right place for yourself without being aware that you have a home where you can really belong have resonated for decades.
But Forsyth was not quite as romantic as he seemed, and that creates a tension, even a melancholy, in Local Hero that lends the film its own particular magic that combined with the gentle humour have had audiences responding to it ever since its release. Not that it was a blockbuster hit: the biggest star it secured was Burt Lancaster, still a household name but not the draw he had been back in his heyday, though you could tell Forsyth had been impressed by him and other Hollywood celebrities of the nineteen-fifties as a kid, almost from the respect Lancaster is afforded despite his character being the butt of much of the humour.
Local Hero was more than a remake of Powell and Pressburger's efforts, as it was also an answer film to the most famous Hollywood version of Scotland to that date, the Gene Kelly musical Brigadoon. In that story, Kelly and Van Johnson find themselves in a magical Scottish village that only appears every hundred years, after which it returns to the mists until it is reawakened. It would be churlish to complain about a movie that featured Kelly dancing with Cyd Charisse, but Scots have always been ambivalent at best about it, maybe thanks to the dreadful approximations of the local accent that are employed throughout.
Yet more than that, no matter there was that haunting development of Kelly falling in love with Charisse's native and having to decide between staying with her in the cursed hamlet or returning to the real world without her, the fact remained the tunes were not the best ever heard in this Golden Age of the American musical, and there was always something lacklustre and terribly studiobound about Brigadoon, as if they had done the barest minimum to bring Allan Jay Lerner's stage show to the silver screen. As a film, it was little better than a filmed play, fair enough one with Gene Kelly taking the lead, but a listless affair, nonetheless.
Not so Local Hero, which had its magical cake and ate it too. One of the main jokes was those villagers, in Brigadoon unwilling to escape their fate (or parochialism), yet in this they were only too pleased to sell out to the enormous, Texas-based oil company if it makes them millionaires. Lancaster was the head man who sets his sights on said village on the north coast of Scotland as ideal for an oil refinery, and Peter Riegert was his underling, despatched to the location to make the deal because he is believed to have Scottish roots himself, being surnamed MacIntyre after all. He admits early on his immigrant family adopted the name to sound more American.
But there's a dedication to keeping the audience puckishly off guard that Forsyth brought out to its finest incarnation in his work, so characters are continually being caught out, be that Mac's revelation that the village is such a peaceful, improving place in touch with nature and the cosmos that he really doesn't want spoil the environment with that refinery, to occasional folks cropping up like the resident who thought being a millionaire would improve his life when it has had no effect; indeed, it has made him less certain if he is happy. There was a touch of Frank Capra's faith in the common man and woman here, too.
In the eighties there was a television advert for an oil giant that said it had built a pipeline across this countryside we were witnessing, all rolling fields and cute dormice, but before you got up in arms and tried to protest, it was all right, we were seeing the land now the work had been done, and it was actually as serene as it had been before the upheaval. Were they aware of Local Hero and its pro-environment, anti-exploitation stance? For the camera lovingly traced the shoreline of the village in a manner making it very clear that once we dispense with such natural scenes, when they're gone, they're gone, and all because of money.
Then again, the film also makes the point that oil is necessary for the modern world, but even up to the conclusion you're not certain how this will resolve itself - its leisurely pace belied its concerns that people are just as able to make the wrong choice as the right one, and both have consequences. Really, what you must do is find someone or something to love: Lancaster's oil baron has no family, and he has replaced that affection with astronomy, looking to the heavens to affirm himself as a vital part of the world and beyond. Mac, meanwhile, has no real relationship to bolster him, which is why the village becomes the great love he never had.
The man who owns the beach and its environs is Fulton Mackay, and the beach is what he loves, where he lives in a shack; he makes sure the characters know what should be important to them. Yet Local Hero does not necessarily have a happy ending, indeed Forsyth wanted it to close on a downer, while the commercially-minded Hollywood execs wanted the opposite, and the compromise they came to is one of the most poignant, ambiguous and perfect endings you’ll ever see. The way it leaves you hanging as Mark Knopfler's theme music finally establishes itself, realising maybe even you did not want the film to end, such was the spell it cast, complemented its charm and its laughs which though it could get dramatic and profound, remained as light as a feather in effect.
Comparisons with other films could be made, but there was only one Local Hero.
[This is released on Blu-ray in a Collector's Edition by Film 4 with the following features:
2k digital restoration - made from original 35mm materials
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio / Uncompressed 2.0 PCM Stereo
Audio commentary with director Bill Forsyth and film critic Mark Kermode
Getting In On The Action (1982) - 29 min behind-the-scenes documentary
The Music Of Local Hero (2019) - Brand new interview with composer Mark Knopfler
A Conversation With Peter Capaldi & Gordon Sinclair (1982)
The South Bank Show - Making Of Local Hero (1983)
Interview with Bill Forsyth
Original theatrical trailer.]