More than 30 years since it was made, fan Jasper Rees writes about the enduring legacy of Local Hero, and talks to director Bill Forsyth.
One year ago Donald Trump’s plan to plant a golfing resort on a strip of Aberdonian coastline hit a glitch. A farmer living in a trailer on some putative fairway declined to sell up. A personal visitation from the gambling squillionaire resulted in a salty Anglo-Saxon exchange. Boy would you love to see the movie. Except that in a way you already have.
Local Hero, in which a Texan oil company’s attempt to buy up a whole Scottish village is thwarted by a lone white-haired beachcomber, is now more than 30 years old. Half of the film was shot just up the road in the tiny port of Pennan – nowadays known, according to undiscoveredscotland.co.uk, as the home of ‘Scotland’s most famous phone box’. The years have done nothing to undermine the status of Bill Forsyth’s film as a modest British masterpiece.
That’s how this committed fan has always thought of it, anyway. I first saw Local Hero as a school leaver in 1983, and it has been in residence in my cerebral cortex ever since, alongside Mark Knopfler’s bitter-sweet acoustic theme. The first time round it seemed merely a comic gem. The joke was that the village hicks are far cannier than they appear to MacIntyre, a cocksure emissary sent from Houston to negotiate. But the older you get, the more it looks like the darkest Nordic tragedy: having fallen in love with this bucolic paradise, the incomer is brutally exiled back to the all-American inferno of skyscrapers and tailbacks.
It’s a measure of how subversive a film it was that Forsyth got into trouble at the test screening in Seattle. ‘There was irritation’ he recalls, ‘that this little upstart from Europe was having the gall to hint these things about the American way of life. MacIntyre was an everyman losing his personality in the glass tower of work. One guy got me against the wall and said, “You don’t have the right to play around with the American hero.’”
Forsyth has long since retreated from film. Local Hero’s success did bring him the chance to make three movies in America. He returned disillusioned and since Gregory’s Two Girls (1999) hasn’t shot a frame. But along with Peter Riegert and Denis Lawson, the film’s two male leads, he accepted my invitation to wander down memory lane.
Local Hero came about when producer David Puttnam, about to win an Oscar for Chariots of Fire, advised Forsyth that there would be studio money for a Scottish script with parts for a couple of American actors. Forsyth wrote the role of the star-gazing petro-mogul Felix Happer with Burt Lancaster ‘from the very beginning in my head: I’d read in an interview that he’d like to do some real comedy.’ Having alighted on oil, he drew on a then recent deal struck with an oil consortium in Orkney. ‘The chief executive of the council,’ he recalls, ‘realised he had a strong position and got the community a cut of the revenue and incredible things like care of libraries and community centres.’
Thus was conceived the alluring figure of Gordon Urquhart, the village’s savvy hotelier and accountant (‘we tend to double up on jobs around here,’ as Urquhart explains). ‘Around that time it was quite hard to find a contemporary Scottish character who wasn’t in wellies and a kilt or a Gorbals heavy,’ says Lawson, who underplayed him beautifully. ‘I had hardly ever used my own voice. It’s the most enjoyable experience I’ve ever had.’ The same endorsement comes from Riegert, who had to fight off Michael Douglas and half of Hollywood to land the part of MacIntyre. ‘If you could storyboard the best possible experience for an actor, this would be it,’ he says. ‘It was effortless. I recognised the material right off the page. My only question was how well could the director direct this movie? I saw Gregory’s Girl and that pretty much convinced me there wouldn’t be any problem.’
It was in his no-budget comedy about teenage angst that Forsyth, who had mostly made documentaries, paraded a taste for off-beat whimsy. In Local Hero he quietly folded it into a capacious narrative about sea and sky and the tectonic plates of the Cold War. By night the northern lights twinkle benignly in a sky which daily swarms with NATO test-jets, while the ancient waters yield lobsters, embargoed South African oranges and a hearty trawlerman from Murmansk, who boats in to sing at the ceilidh and check on his investment portfolio. This colourful character was no fanciful invention.
‘There were Russian trawlers that anchored off Ullapool,’ says Forsyth. ‘In the thick of the Cold War it was quite interesting that half a dozen Russians would come ashore and go into a pub. A very basic motivation was to let people feel that Scotland had a cosmopolitan aspect.’ Hence the plot’s other fish out of water, the parish’s West African vicar.
The film has had a healthy afterlife on VHS and DVD. In recent years its environmental credentials have crystallised into what now looks like a timely sermon about our over-reliance on oil. Happer choppers in like a deus ex machina to close the deal, only to come up against old Ben, the wise man of the beach who persuades him to switch from oil to astronomy. MacIntyre is expelled back to his snazzy Houston high-rise with only sea shells and snapshots as mementoes. Remarkably Riegert played the exquisitely melancholy final scene before he’d clapped eyes on Pennan or Arisaig on the west coast, where the beach scenes were filmed.
‘Since we hadn’t made the movie and I didn’t know what my emotional experience was going to be,’ he explains, ‘I had to disinvest my imagination so the audience could invest theirs onto me. To me that’s what makes the execution of the movie so interesting. Bill understood that movie-goers are not interested in what the actors are feeling. They’re interested in what they’re feeling.’ Forsyth also understood that he had ended on a wrist-slashing note. So did Puttnam, who tried to undermine the bleakness of his director’s vision by arranging screenings for him of Whisky Galore and It’s A Wonderful Life. Eventually the studio stepped in and asked for a more uplifting ending.
‘They wanted Mac to change his mind and stay,’ says Forsyth. ‘It was very early days for me in Hollywood but I thought that’s such a typical studio response. It’s as if the other half of the movie doesn’t mean anything. It seems so banal.’ In the end he offered a compromise which they didn’t realise was even blacker. Before ‘Going Home’, Knopfler’s electronic version of the theme tune, surges in (it was recorded on Puttnam’s instructions to send the audience home in a better mood), there is one final wide shot of the village and its gleaming phone box. It rings, but nobody answers. The American everyman has been forgotten.
The phone box receives visitors to this day. ‘I’ve been back once,’ says Lawson. ‘I drove in just to have a little look around. There was a couple who had driven in behind us to see the phone box. And they couldn’t quite believe that I was standing there.’