Local Hero: Our Man in Ferness

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.”

That cautionary diagnosis deepens as Local Hero progresses, and Forsyth refuses to offer any reassuringly easy solutions. It is no accident that the film’s most environmentally aware characters are also its most clearly (and deliberately) fantastic. The beachcombing, antimaterialistic Scottish seer Ben (Fulton Mackay) is an extravagantly romantic creation, while Marina (Jenny Seagrove), a PhD-bearing, web-footed mermaid, is a fairy-tale one. Within Local Hero, it is Ben and Marina alone who articulate a realistic and considered sense of the natural world’s true worth, and of the ideal relationship humans might adopt toward it. But their understanding of that world springs from immersions within it—he permanently inhabiting a beach, she occasionally living beneath the waves—that are impossible, or nearly so, for us to achieve in real life.

These environmental images and ideas are typical of the seriousness that runs through Forsyth’s comedy across all of the eight features he has made to date. In his superb 1987 adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel Housekeeping, for example, central characters abandon the comforts of “civilized” domesticity for immersion in nature and an itinerant life. Echoing Local Hero’s tonal complexity, Housekeeping refuses to portray its protagonists’ decision as either straightforwardly perverse or straightforwardly principled, throwing such judgments back to the audience instead. Several of Local Hero’s other themes make equally sophisticated contributions to Forsyth’s distinctive form of humor, and also regularly reappear across his oeuvre. One such preoccupation involves the profound material and emotional difficulties that people encounter when searching for a home (whether as a physical place or a psychological state). Since Forsyth first explored this idea in Local Hero, every one of his subsequent movies has also featured protagonists who either struggle to achieve or (as in Housekeeping) deliberately reject the comforting myth of domesticity as a fixed point of geographical or psychological residence. Local Hero’s immediate follow-up, Comfort and Joy (1984), for instance, follows the travails of a Glasgow disc jockey whose romantic disappointments make him feel utterly alone within the local community whose sense of identity his daily broadcasts help sustain.

Local Hero’s particular take on the elusiveness of home represents perhaps the most unsparingly sober of all the film’s ingenious ironies and jokes. The story’s arc seems to offer Mac the possibility of just such a haven before belatedly denying his arrival there. Running jokes are a signature element of Forsyth’s comic approach; the respective scales of the beauty dangled before Mac and the misery of its eventual loss are communicated through one such chain of gags. Telephones abound within scenes set in his hometown of Houston, whereas he finds that Ferness functions with a single public phone box. In Houston, technology erodes community: people can easily speak across any distance, but their conversations usually alienate them from one another. In Ferness, the physical nature of most dealings appears to bring people closer together. Little wonder, then, that Mac aches to swap the States for Scotland, or that we as viewers root for him in this regard too. Ultimately, however, Local Hero’s exquisitely open-ended conclusion sees Mac and most of the film’s Scottish characters seemingly stranded in places that they still don’t want to call home. Mac is forced to quit Ferness, while the villagers’ desire to sell up is thwarted when the Knox petrochemical-plant plan falls through. In this way, one of the funniest films of the eighties also ends up being one of the most thought-provoking.

An unhelpful attitude about Forsyth involves the patronizing critical notion that his films, while they have delighted many, are constrained by their obvious and sympathetic interest in the quirks of human identity and activity. A Bill Forsyth film, the argument goes, struggles to wrench its creative energies away from the small-scale (albeit charming) act­ions of harmless Walter Mitty types. The compliments routinely offered Forsyth’s films are often double-edged for this reason. “Gentle,” “wry,” “quirky,” “quaint,” “whimsical”—this is the rhetoric of (undeserved) diminution. Forsyth, to quote Jonathan Rosenbaum, all too often ends up dismissed as “a lowercase filmmaker” within histories of late-twentieth-century cinema.

Forsyth has been aware of this dilemma since his career’s earliest stages. At the time of Local Hero’s release, he said, “I feel insistently misunderstood . . . All the films I’ve made, I’ve always had a much darker side than most people have perceived.” It’s easy to see how such a superficial misreading might play out in the case of Local Hero. Its comic ensemble could be neatly pigeonholed as baffled (Mac), barmy (Happer), and bucolic (the folk of Ferness). But when the central characters of Forsyth’s cinema are properly considered, a far more complex picture emerges. Local Hero’s entire plot, for example, arises from and is resolved by the aspirations and actions of a protagonist (Happer) who suspects, but fails to fully understand, the compromised nature of his mental health. A similar structural premise shapes the plots and themes of both Comfort and Joy and Housekeeping. Unemployed Glasgow teenager Ronnie (Robert Buchanan), the lead character of Forsyth’s debut feature, That Sinking Feeling (1979), contemplates suicide. The congenital naivete of Gregory Underwood (John Gordon Sinclair) becomes much less benign when Forsyth’s final film to date, Gregory’s Two Girls (1999), revisits the eternal youth of Gregory’s Girl (1980). Breaking In (1989) is a subtly wrought portrait of an aging career criminal (Burt Reynolds) whose professional mastery is predicated on personal masochism. The five protagonists (each played by Robin Williams) of Being Human (1994) are all traumatized by long-term separation from partners and/or children. Granted, Forsyth’s treatment of such people and the situations they find themselves in is nonjudgmental and often outright funny. But it is also remarkably unsparing and clear-eyed, a hallmark of the subtlety and originality that characterize all of this filmmaker’s cinema.

For all the reasons above, Local Hero should be seen as a seminal late-twentieth-century film and its creator as a seminal late-twentieth-century filmmaker. But Forsyth must also be celebrated for the remarkable scale of his importance for filmmaking in his native country. It was not simply that the critical success of his first three features—That Sinking Feeling, the worldwide breakout hit Gregory’s Girl, and Local Hero—announced the arrival of an internationally significant new British filmmaking talent. It was also that, with the possible (and at best only partial) exception of Bill Douglas’s Childhood Trilogy (1972–78), Forsyth’s trio of features represented the first time a Scottish filmmaker had successfully managed to produce fiction features working from a Scottish base and with significant elements of Scottish cultural content, creative talent, and funding input.

By the time of Local Hero’s release, then, the weight of local cinematic expectation and aspiration on Forsyth’s shoulders was an extraordinarily heavy one. In significant part, this was because the historical absence of an indigenous Scottish cinema had not meant a historical absence of cinematic images of Scotland. To many local minds, the inesca­pable problem with the latter was that they had been produced within other film industries, mainly the metropolitan British one and Hollywood. Depictions of Scotland had thus been flagrantly romantic and unrealistic. The contemporary hope was that an emergent wave of natively based filmmaking talent, spearheaded by Forsyth, would produce a genuine national cinema that would correct and compensate for decades of cultural misrepresentation.

Local Hero acts as a knowing exploration-cum-exploitation of the American and English cinematic stereotypes of Scotland that had previously held sway.”

Local Hero’s perspective on questions of national image and identity is therefore an inescapably central aspect of the movie, notwithstanding Forsyth’s worry, expressed as early as 1985, that “too many people . . . liked it because of its nice, eccentric Scottish background.” One way to understand the film’s Scottishness is to focus on the topical resonance of its plot. Encouraged by producer David Puttnam to come up with an idea for a Scotland-set film featuring a couple of American characters, Forsyth soon drew inspiration from the American role in the late-seventies North Sea oil boom. But more fundamentally, Local Hero acts as a knowing exploration-cum-exploitation of the American and English cinematic stereotypes of Scotland that had previously held sway. From I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) through Brigadoon (1954) and on to The Wicker Man (1973), Scotland was externally imagined as a country literally and figuratively removed from the conventions and expectations of the modern metropolitan world. Forsyth, in one early-eighties interview, dismissively termed this phenomenon “the Brigadoon thing.”

Within “the Brigadoon thing,” and also in Local Hero’s satirizing of it, cultures clash and tables turn. A representative of the modern world and its values (Mac, in Local Hero’s case) arrives in Scotland and is seduced at every turn, and ultimately shown the error of his or her ways by cheerfully amoral, antimodern locals (here the villagers of Ferness). Local Hero subverts this stereotypical template even as its plot by and large adheres to it. As noted above, the film’s ending denies Mac and its audience alike the comforting illusion of Scotland as a tartan Shangri-la that sits waiting for jaded foreigners to relocate to it. Moreover, much of the movie’s comedy stems from the fact that it is only Mac who labors wholly under that misapprehension in the first place. Viewers are able to take consistent delight in the film’s supportive representation of the villagers’ ingenuity and lack of scruples in putting on a masquerade of both a traditional way of life and a sentimental attachment to it only in order to add zeroes to the check they believe their credulous American visitor will eventually write.

The international critical and commercial success of Local Hero and Forsyth’s other early films did not produce the immediate fillip for Scottish cinema that many hoped for at the start of the eighties. After Comfort and Joy, the director did not make another Scottish-set feature until Gregory’s Two Girls. And while numerous other Scottish filmmakers of the period tried to imitate the comedic sophistication and commercial performance of the model for indigenous production that Forsyth had established, none succeeded in the attempt. But Forsyth himself indisputably remains a central figure in the history of Scottish cinema. The sense of creative and film-industrial possibility that his early successes created lingered long enough to spark a second, and far more sustained, wave of Scottish filmmaking from the early nineties on. Andrew Macdonald, the producer whose low-budget international hits Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting (1996) were at the forefront of that phenomenon, argued in 2009 that Forsyth is “the most important person in Scottish cinema” because “what he did enabled me and lots of other people to become filmmakers.” 

Forsyth has also exerted a pronounced influence on the content of the work of younger Scottish filmmakers. That Sinking Feeling and Gregory’s Girl had focused on child and adolescent protagonists in part for practical reasons: Forsyth worked with young, local nonprofessional actors because he had no budget to speak of. One result has been his movies’ continued interest in preadult protagonists, or their more general conception of human identity as an intrinsically immature state. It seems more than mere coincidence, therefore, that childhood narratives and metaphors abound within the Scottish cinema that has followed in Forsyth’s wake. Writer-director Lynne Ramsay’s much-lauded 1999 debut feature, Ratcatcher, for example, strongly echoes That Sinking Feeling in its extended (albeit much less comic) exploration of teenage alienation within the deprived environs of seventies inner-city Glasgow. From the year before, Peter Mullan’s comparably acclaimed directorial debut, Orphans, portrays millennial Scottish society through the perspectives of four adults experiencing deep psychological convulsion and regression following the death of their only surviving parent.

Forsyth was a pioneer in creating international interest in Scottish cinema and opened doors for subsequent local heroes to follow in his footsteps. But as Local Hero eloquently demonstrates, its creator is both an important Scottish filmmaker and an important filmmaker who just happens to hail from Scotland. The comedy of Forsyth’s third feature—by turns observational, philosophical, and physical—is brilliantly achieved. Yet the movie also nails its emotionally, environmentally, and existentially challenging themes. In other words, Local Hero is an utterly characteristic example of Forsyth’s cinema—from start to end, it makes us think while laughing and laugh while thinking. The voyage viewers undertake recalls Mac’s trip within the film itself; where Local Hero deposits both him and us isn’t necessarily where either he or we thought we’d set out for—but we are immeasurably wiser for finding ourselves there as a result of our time in Bill Forsyth’s hands.