Weekend Film Recommendation: Local Hero

Following the success of his low-budget films That Sinking Feeling and Gregory’s Girl, Scottish film maker Bill Forsyth had the adjective “quirky” hung on him by critics, and it stuck. But there’s a nicer way to describe this talented writer-director’s output: Sweet, original and offbeat. For me, no film in Forsyth’s career better illustrates those qualities than 1983’s Local Hero.

On its face, the plot is simple. Knox Petroleum needs to buy an entire Scottish seaside town in order to further its oil empire, so its all powerful and extremely eccentric President Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) dispatches a guy named MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) to close the sale, because, well, he’s Scottish so he understands these people. In a more clich├ęd film, the quietly noble and down-to-earth townspeople would resist the heartless tyrants of capitalism. I will not spoil the film for you but rest assured that Forsyth is far too creative to follow that tired line of plot, either for MacIntyre and Happer or for the people of the village.

Under Forsyth’s direction, the cast sparkles throughout. Burt Lancaster, like Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood, was wise enough in late life to transition from swashbuckling roles to more age-appropriate fare. His turn as an isolated, slightly daft, stargazing corporate titan is hilarious, particularly his scenes with one of the most abusive psychotherapists in film history.

Peter Riegert is very good at playing people who are present in some respects but completely absent in others. Outwardly, his MacIntyre is a financially successful oil acquisitions man. On the inside, he is a lonely person with a bitter break-up behind him and, the film hints, more romantic disappointments to come. His last name is Scottish but even that isn’t real; he no more belongs in Scotland than he does anywhere else. What pulls on his emotions the most about the Scottish town is the wildly satisfying (in every respect) marriage of his hosts at the local B&B. It’s the life he longs for but simply doesn’t know how to create.

The charming Jenny Seagrove, whose success in UK film and television unfortunately never translated across the pond, hits the right notes as a scientist with whom Peter Capaldi’s character falls in love (Capaldi, later so good as a thoroughgoing bastard on The Thick of It and In the Loop, is completely different here in the film that first brought him notice). Kudos also to the set designers for Felix Happer’s bizarre and palatial office suite, and to Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits fame for an understated and memorable score.

Like most of Forsyth’s films, there are a few big laughs and many more small ones. Wistful in some ways, joyful in others, this quiet gem of a movie will bring a smile to your face.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

19 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Local Hero”

  1. SPOILER ALERT DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE

    Two wonderful, understated moments in a wonderful, understated movie: the opening shot, in which Peter Reigert’s oil executive character, about to head off to Scotland to buy property for his oil company, is stuck in Texas traffic on his morning commute in his uber-mile-per-hour Porsche Turbo, and the closing one, in which he returns to his Texas apartment after weeks in Scotland and all the lights are on…

  2. Sounds like a great movie.
    Just for the record, Burt Lancaster played slightly daft star gazers throughout his career. “The Rose Tatoo”, “Atlantic City” and “The Rainmaker” come to mind.

  3. This is the great unheralded movie of the 80s, and one of the most difficult films to pull off – from a director’s perspective – that I’ve ever seen. It’s not just that it’s funny, it’s that it’s so many different kinds of funny. He uses slapstick, and romantic comedy, and they don’t clash. It’s really remarkable.

    Also, best musical score ever. Bar none. Ever.

  4. Local Hero is basically a remake of I Know Where I Am Going. They’re both wonderful films and very romantic. (I’ll second Whiskey Galore. It’s also a lot of fun.)

    1. Kaleberg: That is an interesting parallel to draw. It is sad how few people remember that movie, maybe I will recommend it here some weekend.

  5. When Gregory’s Girl was playing the rep theatres in Toronto, the mini review said “nothing much happens in this movie, and nothing much needs to”.

  6. One of the reasons my (now) wife and I knew we had a future together when we met — we both loved “Local Hero” (and “Purple Rose of Cairo”).

  7. Has always been a favorite, and even though I haven’t seen it since original release I can easily recall several scenes. Definitely something to go out of your way to see. Lapidary in construction and sly in telling, especially for Americans.

    Totally off-topic, but maybe the right place to ask. Some months before Bertolucci’s Last Emperor I seem to remember a very different Chinese release by the same name that somehow got lost. Does anyone remember it?

    1. Altoid: Do you mean Yimou Zhang’s film “Hero” starring Jet Li? That was a beautiful and exciting movie.

      1. Not that one. It came out about a year or two before Bertolucci’s and got ignored through confusion with it, I think. Same title: Last Emperor. Wikipedia has it down as a 1986 Hong Kong production, the first time I’ve actually been able to catch a reference to it. I remember it has having really great visuals and being very sensitively done. Its release may explain why this particular proposal among several floated to Beijing by Bertolucci was approved.

        In a completely different vein but lots of fun is Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman, Takeshi Kitano’s production (apparently it’s kind of a franchise and has been done zillions of times but this is the one to catch). The interviews and supplementary stuff on the dvd are also great.

    1. That was the other Forsyth film I thought needed mentioning here – lovely soft melancholy, not indulgent or self-indulgent – set at Christmas (hence the title). Well worth a look if the other ones mentioned here (not the Jet Li ones…) appeal.

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