By Tony Williams.
Local Hero is much more complex than the frequent tourist’s bird’s eye of an unspoiled Britain. Something more complex, darker, and resonant appears with the frequent viewings it demands.”
After some disappointing recent releases, it was welcome news to see Criterion return to its former status with this excellent digital restoration and director-approved two-DVD Special Edition. One suspects that Bill Forsyth’s continuing presence and his gentle but firm commitment to high standards has resulted in the appearance of an edition that will contribute to the film’s already high reputation. Appearing a year after the publication of Colin Macarthur’s well-known monograph Scotch Reels (1), Local Hero (1983) intuitively appeared to take up the gauntlet of Scottish cinematic stereotypes focused upon “Kailyard” and “Kirk”. This representation often featured stereotypical national characters portrayed by actors such as John Laurie (1897-1980) who, with the exception of directors such as Michael Powell recognizing versatility, often appeared doomed to depict the Celtic version of Steppin’ Fetchitt (1902-1985), a fate also affecting Welsh character actor Talfryn Thomas (1922-1982). Following the successful Gregory’s Girl (1980), Forsyth proved himself much more than a “local director” bringing into this film a sublimated awareness of other cinematic traditions while recognizing the emerging global forces of culture and environment that would come into greater focus as the decades passed. The film may display another example of that local British sensibility seen in Ealing Comedies and Heritage Dramas that find their inexplicable ways into American sensibilities. However, Local Hero is much more complex than the frequent tourist’s bird’s eye of an unspoiled Britain. Something more complex, darker, and resonant appears with the frequent viewings it demands.
A charming and entertaining film, it deals not with the usual tenderfoot Easterner going West, as in Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902), re-adapting to a New World, but a twentieth-century inhabitant of a Texas “Brave New World” of corporate glass palaces now replacing those Gothic Houses of Usher and Seven Gables. They are but nonetheless threatening in their promotion of dehumanized forms of existence. Houston oil executive Macintyre, who is actually not Scottish but Hungarian (his surname presumably the product of Cold War tensions), enjoys making his version of “The Art of the Deal” on phone, using the instrument to talk to his co-workers, and unsuccessfully engage in his version of “The Dating Game” in his last night in Houston. He finds himself transported to the Hebridean landscape of Ferness to buy out the community for a proposed petrochemical plant. Mac follows the orders of his reclusive Howard Hughes-type boss Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) who, despite his name, is not a “happy camper” but engaged in some sort of perverse sado-masochistic psychological therapy that does him no good, as it would undoubtedly have also failed with Lancaster’s former character General Dell in Robert Aldrich’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977).
British and European antecedents are not too far away, but the knowledgeable Forsyth chooses to sublimate them within the narrative and not fling them in the audiences’ faces, as would Quentin Tarantino two decades later. The Scottish community rallying against the stubborn Sassenach as well as welcoming those who understand their customs is a key aspect of Alexander McKendrick’s Whiskey Galore (1949) as is the transformation of a self-made American portrayed earlier by Paul Douglas in McKendrick’s Ealing Comedy The Maggie (1955). The community are by no means harmless country bumpkins as seen in the eventual humiliation of Captain Waggett (Basil Radford) in Whiskey Galore and the imminent lynching of beachcomber Ben before the divine helicopter intervention of Happer who will discover his “Promised Land”, not see it from afar like Lancaster’s Moses in the Italian-British TV (1973) mini-series. By contrast, Mac’s “American Adam” will face expulsion from his Celtic Eden and return home in one of the most poignant conclusions to any film. The community members are more streetwise and economically shrewd than he will ever be and already calculate their own versions of an economic “knowledge of good and evil” of which the city slicker shows no awareness.
In many ways, the charming Scottish community are Celtic versions of those ambivalent forces of bucolic light and darkness seen in Marcel Pagnol’s Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (1962) and the Clochemerle series (1934-1948) written by Gabielle Chevallier (1895-1969). Clochemerle appeared on BBC TV in 1972 in a nine-part mini-series version scripted by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson known for their Hancock’s Half Hour successful radio and TV series. Contemporary events also occured in the Scottish Hebrides that influenced Forsyth in his treatment for producer David Puttnam. In his audio-commentary with Mark Kermode, Douglas mentions the appearance of a Russian female in one scene who he had earlier seen translating Tarkovsky when he visited Scotland for a film presentation. One wonders whether the alienating landscape of Houston evoked parallels with the car drive of the astronaut prior to the color sequences of Solaris (1972)?
Local Hero works very well on its own but these associations make it much more remarkable as a film exploiting comedy and seriousness with an emphasis on character rather than frenzied acting. It contains a sympathetic (rather than condescending) exploration of eccentricity as well as unexpected changes in character transformation. It definitely did change perceptions of the Scottish character paving the way for UK mini-series, such as Shetland (2013- ).
The second disc contains a joint 2018 audio-commentary with Forsyth and Mark Kermode that contains some interesting observations when Forsyth labels the film “Brigadoon vs. Apocalypse Now” fully aware of the global dominance of American culture and economics just gaining headway in 1983. Fighter planes often fly ominously above, breaching the Edenic beauty of a Scottish beach with its connotations of war that is possibly imminent. During a night sequence, both commentators recognize the inescapable influence of The Archers’ I Know Where I’m Going (1945). Unlike Brigadoon (1954), the village not an ideal haven of light but also containing darker elements. However, one wishes that a more critical commentator could have complimented the easygoing Forsyth since Kermode tends to lapse too often into fulsome praise, often duly deserved but frequently gushing; one wishes for a more objective counterpoint that David Cairns could have provided.
Cairns appears in a new 2019 interview with Forsyth that lasts some 16 minutes. In its brief duration Cairns often gets to the heart of the matter, noting the director’s emphasis upon a narrative that focuses on what is happening to Mac rather than him being a usual character who drives the action itself, of which there is predominantly little. Their exchanges are rewarding. Also included is a 52-minute 1985 Scottish TV documentary about cinematographer Chris Menges covering his work in documentary television, such as ITV’s World in Action as well as his other collaborations with Stephen Frears and Neil Jordan.
Another welcome addition is the 52-minute 1983 South Bank Show devoted to the making of Local Hero that I saw on its first broadcast. Other complimentary documentaries rescued from the archives are Scottish Television’s 1983 The Making of Local Hero with interviews by Lancaster and Peter Riegert as well as another 1983 Scottish TV 26-minute interview with Forsyth who speaks about his beginnings as a documentary filmmaker and his features up to and including Local Hero.
This very fine DVD set probably owes much to the involvement of a director who played a key role in alerting Criterion to the rich archive material awaiting re-discovery for a new generation of viewers.
1. Colin MacArthur, Scotch Reels: Scotland in Cinema and Television. London, BFI Publishing, 1982.
Tony Williams is an independent writer and a Contributing Editor to Film International.