Bill Forsyth is Scotland’s most famous filmmaker, and Local Hero (1983) is his most famous film—for many, the true subject of Local Hero’s title is the Glasgow-born writer-director himself. The enduring affection and adulation for Local Hero stem from the way the film testifies, thematically and tonally, to the impressive scale and subtlety of Forsyth’s filmmaking talent. While the work is deeply rooted both in Scottish culture and in filmic representations of Scotland, it also has a globally relevant environmental agenda. It is laugh-out-loud funny in its seemingly endless and effortless profusion of sight, sound, and dialogue gags but signs off with one of cinema’s saddest images of loneliness and longing. Acutely topical, the movie is also deliberately mythical in its exploration of an archetypal dilemma: Can humankind simultaneously cultivate and conserve the natural world, and even if we can, are we truly willing to?
All of the above flows from an ostensibly unexceptionable model of culture-clash comedy. The central character, Mac (Peter Riegert), a high-flying acquisitions executive at the Houston-based multinational Knox Oil, is dispatched to Scotland by the company’s plutocratic owner, Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster). Mac’s destination is Ferness, a remote Highland village that is a site of unspoiled natural beauty and rare marine-biological and astronomical interest. His confidential mission is to buy the entire village and its environs so that Knox can transform them into a huge petrochemical refinery. What unfolds, however, is less Highland Clearance (the compulsory removal of entire Scottish townships in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to make way for industrial-scale livestock farming) and more modern-day Highland business conference. The villagers, marshaled by astute local hotel owner and accountant Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson), are aware of their visitor’s supposedly secret agenda from the moment he arrives. Anything but in thrall to an atavistic attachment to their ancestral lands, as Mac presumes they are, the locals are in fact only too keen to sell, and feign reluctance only as a means of driving up the asking price.
Local Hero has a thematic beating heart that was frequently overlooked in 1983: our stubborn reluctance to accept either the reality of environmental crisis or our responsibility for bringing it about in the first place. In the film’s first scene—a signature example of Forsyth’s ability to blend humor with solemnity—a radio traffic report audible inside Mac’s company car informs him (and us) that an inbound hurricane has abruptly changed direction in order to avoid Houston’s rush-hour traffic. This introduces an absurd assumption that many of the film’s characters proceed to act on in all seriousness: that civilization can bend nature’s most elemental forces to its will, and even the most fundamental of the planet’s self-regulating ecological and meteorological processes can be anticipated, simulated, and transformed if necessary (or convenient). Today, Local Hero seems both profound and prophetic in its perception, decades before the idea of climate emergency became common currency, that humankind believes itself to be protected indefinitely from any meaningful environmental hardship, no matter how abusive or unrealistic our demands on finite natural resources become.
“The film’s particular take on the elusiveness of home represents perhaps the most unsparingly sober of all its ingenious ironies and jokes.”
“Local Hero acts as a knowing exploration-cum-exploitation of the American and English cinematic stereotypes of Scotland that had previously held sway.”
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