It’s almost frightening to realize that some films, TV shows, and record albums I first enjoyed as a young(er) person have now existed for 30, 40, or 50 years. Time marches on. But it also stands still, in a very real way, throughout Local Hero, my favorite film of all time, comedy or otherwise. Written and directed by Bill Forsyth, it was released in 1983 — yes, forty years ago.
It is also my favorite film comedy — and I love a lot of film comedies, reaching back over a century to the silent era. But somehow, from the moment I first stumbled upon this film while channel surfing and finding it on HBO or some such channel back in the mid-’80s, it affected me like no other has, before or since. I missed perhaps the first fifteen minutes or so of that unexpected, 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 really seem hurt at all), I settled in to watch the rest…
A bit of background: Bill Forsyth began as an editor for documentary films, which led to the creation of his first two comedies, using small budgets and mostly 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. He shot it on 16mm film, entirely on location. The plot follows a group of unemployed teens looking for a bit of adventure — and cash — who embark on a plan to heist stainless-steel sinks from a warehouse, and then sell them, somehow. Due to a miniscule budget, the production is just a bit rough around the edges, but the characters are appealing, as are the actors who play them.
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 school team. This is where Forsyth hit his stride, with his casually paced storytelling, and sympathetic approach to the quasi-misfit characters he has created.
Then came Local Hero, with the backing of producer David Puttnam, whose Chariots of Fire had just won a truckload of international awards. He proved to be a valuable ally for Forsyth when trying to sell his latest work.
As the film opens, 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 (a hilarious 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, which would give way to a huge oil refinery and storage facility.
It is during this memorable first meeting when Mac sees some of Happer’s quirks firsthand, 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, he meets Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi), his young Scottish counterpart from Aberdeen, whose social awkwardness masks his knowledge of the oil business. The two descend upon Furness, anticipating meeting heavy resistance from the villagers, considering how their town would be fairly obliterated to make way for the Knox complex.
They first connect with Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson), the local attorney/innkeeper/bartender who undertakes the negotiations for the villagers. Gordon and his beautiful wife Stella find themselves amused by Mac’s no-nonsense approach, but it isn’t long before the American hotshot slowly begins to find himself awed by the beauty of the scenery, and by the pure, simple lives of the town’s inhabitants.
His uptight, business-like demeanor (and suit) gradually give way to friendly chit-chat with the locals, and more casual dress (a lesson here for writers and filmmakers on how to show a character’s development without the use of dialogue). He even develops a crush on 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.
Danny, meanwhile, falls for a beauty as well — a Knox company oceanographer, Marina (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 do to Furness. Ironically, it is Mac and Johnny who find themselves regretting the deal. But unexpected developments, and arrivals, are to follow. I won’t give any more away, for those of you unfortunate souls who have yet to experience this truly magical film (I’m not even including film excerpts here — it should be enjoyed in its entirety, not merely a few minutes at a time).
When experiencing this or the other Scottish trilogy films, Forsyth’s comic style soon becomes apparent, and immensely appealing. Unlike the brash, loud, often crude American film comedies that tend to rely on gags involving drinking binges, sexual escapades, and/or various bodily functions, Local Hero carries an unmistakable dignity about it.
The same can be said for Gregory’s Girl and 1984’s Comfort and Joy. They’re quiet films, and the humor is subtle. There are no “jokes” per se, and the actors were directed to keep their reactions very restrained. Jenny Seagrove has called Forsyth “the master of gentle understatement.” But make no mistake about it — all of these films are also genuinely very funny and, yes, charming.
And Local Hero in particular is a film of perfectly delicate balance; every element, so lovingly created in its own right, also compliments another; the cinematography with the music, the dialogue with the action (but don’t expect much action in the traditional sense). If there is a flaw to be found in any aspect of this film, I’ve yet to find it after dozens of viewings.
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 and improvised scenes Forsyth made throughout the writing and filming process), its spot-on cast, the gorgeous cinematography (by Chris Menges), and the gentle, exquisite musical score written and performed by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits?
Well, how about this: After we follow Mac’s visit to Furness and back home, 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 (and it was added only shortly before the film’s release, after a bit of debate with the Warner Bros. studio). If that shot, coupled with Knopfler’s triumphant closing theme, doesn’t bring a happy tear to your eye, check your pulse.
Local Hero was nominated in several categories for the 1984 British Film Academy Awards, including Best Film, Direction, Screenplay, Cinematography, and Music. Forsyth won the award for Best Direction.
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 for his respect for their tiny hamlet on the sea:
Denis Lawson has said of Local Hero, “It’s my favorite job I’ve ever done in my career. It’s quite remarkable what it did to everyone up there.”
As Peter Riegert said in 2023, “I wouldn’t throw away my memories of a good time even if a film failed. This was a great time and a great movie, so I got lucky.”
Until next time…
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Read my previous articles about comedy history at the links below, and at the links below:
“Halloween with Abbott & Costello” https://garryberman.medium.com/halloween-with-abbott-costello-2d39a21bbbba
“Buck Privates: An Appreciation” https://garryberman.medium.com/buck-privates-an-appreciation-da7b7d645fab
“Whatever Happened to Comedy Teams?” https://garryberman.medium.com/whatever-happened-to-comedy-teams-7e243b5c9d45
“Pie in Your Eye: A History of the Pie-in-the-face Gag” https://garryberman.medium.com/pie-in-your-eye-a-history-of-the-pie-in-the-face-gag-4dd8c31286a0
“Stars For a Cause: The Navy Relief Show of 1942” https://garryberman.medium.com/stars-for-a-cause-the-navy-relief-show-of-march-1942-af2ff6edf8d9
“Mary Kay and Johnny: Television’s First Sitcom” https://garryberman.medium.com/mary-kay-and-johnny-televisions-first-sitcom-835fec303b5e
“The First Person to be Censored on TV was…Eddie Cantor? https://garryberman.medium.com/eddie-cantor-the-first-person-to-be-censored-on-tv-78b56c68cae1
“A Tribute To Our Funniest Sitcom Moms” https://garryberman.medium.com/a-tribute-to-our-funniest-sitcom-moms-ed3f5757fe73
“Television’s Greatest Sitcom Dad?” https://garryberman.medium.com/televisions-greatest-sitcom-dad-ef2dab761525
“Breaking the Fourth Wall (in comedy)” https://garryberman.medium.com/breaking-the-fourth-wall-in-comedy-51edfa9f88f0
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