How rare is it to refer to a movie as whimsical, charming or delightful? I can’t remember the last time I thought that of a movie and that got me to thinking about one of my absolute favorite films of the 1980’s, a little seen but lovely Scottish comedy from an amazingly gifted writer/director by the name of Bill Forsythe called Local Hero. This is a movie I have seen a half dozen times or so since its release in 1983 and it never fails to make me smile. It is utterly whimsical, charming and delightful all rolled into one. Upon its release the film played few theaters (mostly in art houses in big cities) but didn’t do well despite great reviews. The film was actually more popular for having its score composed by Mark Knopfler, former leader of the band Dire Straits. The soundtrack actually out grossed the movie.
If these retro reviews are for anything, they are for those of you readers out there looking for a great film that may have eluded you. I do my best to steer you in the right direction each month but let me stress this without doubt: I cannot imagine anyone not liking this movie. If you have the means please seek this wonderful movie out and watch it snuggled up with a loved one in the living room. You will not be disappointed.
Forstyhe’s simple story starts Peter Reigert, best known as Boon in Animal House, as MacIntyre, an employee of Knox Oil in Houston. Knox is looking to build a refinery in Scotland and they think they have found the perfect sight in a small coastal town right off the ocean. MacIntyre (or “Mac” as he is referred to) is chosen because the head of the company, Felix Happer (nicely played by Burt Lancaster in an understated performance) thinks his name sounds Scottish and will get him in good with the townspeople. Happer himself is quite the oddball. He is involved in a strange kind of therapy involving verbal humiliation from the weirdo doctor. He also loves astronomy and instructs Mac to always be watching the skies and if anything unusual appears he is to call Happer’s private line immediately.
Upon arrival in Scotland Mac is greeted by Danny Olsen, a local Knox representative who looks to be barely out of high school. Together the two of them will go to this small community of Ferness and try to buy it from the inhabitants. Their first stop takes them to a Knox research facility where the two men first glimpse Marina, a lovely young woman who happens to look lovelier in a bathing suit and becomes the object of Danny’s affections and, briefly, Mac’s lust. But Danny will soon begin to court her in some wonderful moments that cut in between the crux of the main story.
Ferness turns out to be one of the most charming places I have ever seen in a movie. I understand that parts of the town were actually filmed on opposite sides of the Scottish coast by Forsythe and it was merely created into one place by the magic of movie editing. That’s too bad because I can imagine more than one person deciding to pack up and move to the community for a quiet, peaceful life. This is a town where most of its eccentric inhabitants have more than one job. The town accountant, Gordon, is also the owner of the hotel where Mac and Danny stay and admits to even driving a cab once in a while. The biggest danger in the town seems to be the lone motorcyclist who always happens to be on the road when Mac is coming out of the hotel. More than once he has to dodge the motorcycle for his own safety. It’s another small but delightful touch by Forsythe. The town also appears to only have one phone, a pay phone across from the hotel. When shopping for shampoo the clerk gives him choices as to what type of shampoo. “The normal kind,’ replies a bewildered Mac.
The only downside to this community seems to be the constant appearance of fighter jets that zoom through the sky and do bombing practices in the distance. They disturb an often serene and magical place – but not for too long.
Most of the townspeople have worked long and hard their whole lives and the idea of being bought out by an American oil company and living comfortably for the rest of their lives is quite appealing to them. Well, almost all of them. Enter Ben, the most eccentric of the eccentrics who lives in a shack right on the beach. The shack doesn’t even have a door. “How can you do business with a man who doesn’t have a door?” Mac asks, quizzically, in one of Forsythe’s many terrific lines of dialogue. Ben seems quite content with his shack and getting him to sell may be more difficult than it seems. We soon learn that Ben may be an oddball but he may be the smartest character in the whole film.
As Mac spends more time in Ferness he gets to know the citizens more and more. It seems that he might have a crush on Gordon’s girlfriend, Stella, and there is a lovely scene where Mac and Stella dance together at a local function and, soon after, Mac offers Gordon his life in Houston while the two sit drunk. The one caveat? Mac gets to keep Stella. Gordon drunkenly agrees to the offer, both knowing it will be long forgotten by morning. You will also wonder if Stella might not have a few feelings for Mac as well. Forsythe lets the audience decide that for themselves.
The best thing about this great movie is Forsythe’s wonderfully original script whose characters are all oddballs in their own way but they are all lovable oddballs. There is no villain in this piece, no one to route against. And Forsythe fleshes out his characters so well that even those with little screen time we seem to come to know. We occasionally see a punk rock girl and in one scene she is hurt by rejection from Danny and Forsythe writes and directs the scene in such a way that we feel bad for her even though we don’t really know her. We know her enough, says Forsythe, and we feel bad. Brilliant.
Local Hero is a slow moving film but one that is never boring. The performances are all first rate with Reigert giving the performance of his career. There is absolutely nothing I can complain about this film save for the occasional Scottish accent that might be hard to understand. Other than that this is 111 minutes of pure enjoyment. This is a film to be experienced and enjoyed and I stress again that I cannot imagine anyone not liking this movie. Oh, it’s also fun trying to guess who the local hero of the film is. I think I know but I will leave that for you to figure out for yourself.
Forsythe was a top filmmaker in the 1980’s making his small but delightful movies like this one that would include That Sinking Feeling; Gregory’s Girl and Comfort and Joy, which comes close to this film in its whimsy and charm. Forsythe then came to America and made a few unsuccessful films including Housekeeping, Breaking In (a sadly overlooked comedy/drama with Burt Reynolds as an aging thief) and Being Human. He returned to Scotland and, in 1999, made a sequel to Gregory’s Girl, but he sadly had become so disillusioned with the film industry that, at age 53, he retired from filmmaking vowing to never make another film. Eleven years later he has stuck to his vow and that is a loss to true movie fans. His witty, original films have been and will always be a breath of fresh air. We need more filmmakers like Bill Forsythe. We need more films like Local Hero.