There are many memorable 1980s film comedies, and quite a few have one thing in common: an implicit approval of the “Go-Go 80s” mentality. Money is honey, and it doesn’t matter how characters go about acquiring it, whether through kidnapping or jewel heists or stock fraud. Even a kid who wishes himself into an early adulthood could hit the heights of corporate life.
Scottish writer/director Bill Forsyth’s 1984 film Local Hero is a rebuke of this mentality, though it is probably the gentlest of rebukes you’ll find. There are virtually no villains in this film. Indeed, in spite of the film’s title, there really aren’t any heroes, either.
The only true hero is a place–an astonishingly beautiful bay in Scotland with a special beach that works like magic on the characters.
Main character Mac (Peter Riegert) works in acquisitions for a large company in Texas called Knox Oil and Gas. Mistakenly believed to be of Scottish descent (his parents thought the name “MacIntyre” was an “American” name) he is sent to the tiny town of Ferness. He is to acquire the entire town for an oil refinery and storage facility.
The owner of Knox Oil, Mr. Happer (Burt Lancaster) is a mildly eccentric man obsessed with astronomy and discovering a new comet to name after himself. He instructs Mac to report anything interesting he sees in the sky in Ferness. Mac is annoyed he has to travel so far. He prefers to deal with acquisitions over a telex machine.
Met in Scotland by another Knox employee, Danny (Peter Capaldi), they find themselves trapped on the road by fog. They sleep in the car and wake up to see the stunning vistas of Ferness Bay.
Far from being appalled at the thought of what would happen to the town, the citizens of Ferness, led by hotel owner/accountant Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson), are thrilled at the prospect of becoming overnight millionaires. Hoping to jack up the price, Gordon urges Mac and Danny to take their time to know the place while they work out the deal.
Mac finds life in Ferness strange and inconvenient, especially when he has to use a outdoor phone box to make important phone calls. But he slowly and without even realizing it becomes entranced with the town and its surrounding beauty.
Danny becomes entranced with Marina (Jenny Seagrove) a marine biologist who rises out of the ocean every now and then like a mermaid. Marina knows about the acquisition but believes it’s for a marine laboratory she has pitched to the company. She tells Danny that the bay is special because it gets warm water from the Caribbean.
Mac also becomes interested in the amazing activity in the sky over Ferness. First a meteor shower, then later the Aurora Borealis. He calls Happer excitedly to report his observations. Happer is distracted by his therapist Moritz, who has a weird theory of psychoanalysis which consists of the therapist belittling the patient.
Into the mix arrives Victor, a fisherman from the Soviet Union who seems even more of a capitalist than the American and Scottish characters. Gordon takes care of his finances. Wary of Victor at first, Mac starts to become friendly with him. They talk about their cars and other possessions and promise to visit each other in their respective countries.
At a ceili (dance) Mac and Gordon put the finishing touches to the deal. Mac is depressed. Victor tells him he should be happy he is a success, but he is sad about what will happen to the place after it is sold. He offers to trade lives with Gordon and even asks him to leave his wife Stella (Jennifer Black) with him.
Danny confesses to Marina that the town will become a refinery, not the site of her laboratory. She seems unconcerned, certain that such a thing will never happen in Ferness.
It is discovered that Ben (Fulton MacKay), a man who lives on the beach, actually owns the beach. As eccentric in his own way as Happer, Ben is impervious to all offers of money to buy the beach. Just as Mac and Gordon become concerned that the townsfolk will become violent towards Ben, Happer arrives in a helicopter and lands on the beach.
Happer insists on meeting Ben. Locked up with Ben in his little beach shack, the men become fast friends. The townspeople wait to find out their fate. When Happer exits the shack, he tells Mac that he won’t build the refinery in Ferness, but he still wants the town. He decides to build an observatory because he and Ben have found several interesting objects in the sky. Danny jumps in and suggests he branch out and include a marine laboratory as well, which he could call The Happer Institute.
“The sky and the sea…I like it,” he replies.
Mac is sent back home. Sad to leave Ferness and his new friends, he arrives back home in Texas. The first thing he does is call the phone box on the beach.
As in Forsyth’s other films (Gregory’s Girl, Comfort & Joy, Breaking In) the comedy in Local Hero has a very light touch, as does the element of magic realism. Marina, for instance, is not just like a mermaid because she always arrives from of the sea, but because her feet are webbed, which we discover in an almost throwaway scene. When Mac and Danny are trapped on the road in the fog and it lifts, it’s as if they’ve been magically transported to a new and strange land.
Gordon, Mac, and Danny are all young and extremely ambitious, but they are not soulless and are capable of change. There’s a nice “bromantic” feel to Mac’s relationships with Gordon and Danny. The women, Marina and Stella (whose names mean “sea” and “star”) are practical and have faith in things working out for the best. (It turns out Stella and not Gordon actually owns the hotel. He calls her “the boss.”)
There are quirky characters to spare (including a girl with heavy punk make-up who likes Danny because “he’s different”). Happer could so easily have been a caricature, and in another filmmaker’s hands might have been a one-note bad guy. Here, he has a hand in bringing about the happy ending the story demands, even if it doesn’t totally thrill some of the characters.
The title is a double joke: Mac is neither a “local” nor does he bring about the story’s resolution. But he gets the most profound arc in the story. Riegert is sublime as Mac, who looks for hidden intentions from everyone, and is surprised when they don’t have any.
The best part of the movie is how it never judges the characters for wanting riches and success, while at the same time making the point that we should treasure the environment. The villagers work hard but seem happy and have a real sense of community. It’s no wonder Mac begins to envy them. Mac and Danny stay so focused on the task at hand–whether it’s the deal or Danny’s flirtation with Marina–that they almost miss what’s around them. Even the villagers miss what’s right in front of them.
They almost can’t see the beach for the sand, so to speak. I think that’s Forsyth’s point. With gentle humor and a dab of magic, he urges us to not take important things for granted. Saving the beach in Local Hero is a way of saving ourselves.