What is home if not where we’re born? And can it still be home if we don’t stay? These are the kinds of questions we all contemplate at some point in our lives, but for Texas oil executive Mac (Peter Riegert) they’ve taken on a new urgency. He’s been ordered by his crackpot boss Happer (Burt Lancaster) to travel to a remote area of Scotland called Ferness Bay under the belief that his shared heritage with the locals will make negotiating the sale of their property for a new refinery easier. But Mac’s last name isn’t actually MacIntyre, at least not originally. His family changed it when they emigrated from Hungary. “They thought it sounded more American,” he quips. He’s a good Reaganite capitalist, though, driving his Porsche and speaking in terms like “tanker franchise” and “telexes.” He thinks the world is his oyster; he’s about to find out it’s actually a scallop shell.
Released in the U.S. forty years ago this week, Local Hero is the Platonic ideal of the “fish out of water” story. It’s a cult classic for the sort of person who might volunteer to mix the poison Kool-Aid and then wander off without drinking it. It’s got heart, but the beat is arrhythmic. The same could be said of all Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth’s work. Local Hero is only his third feature but his distinctive voice is already well honed; it’s defiantly oddball and disarmingly sweet, even when adapting others, as in 1987’s Housekeeping. There’s a mythical quality to his films, a sense of being passed along through generations like fables without clear lessons. Because what can ever truly be learned from human nature, which is both repetitive and inexplicable?
Characters with their heads in the clouds are bound to crash into something eventually. This is particularly true of Mac, though he doesn’t realize it until he arrives in Ferness. Dispatched by Happer with the incongruous demand to “keep watching the sky,” Mac is met at the airport by the prelapsarian Danny (Peter Capaldi) and taken to the laboratory to see the refinery model. “It could survive the next Ice Age,” the researchers say without apparent irony. “We tested it.” Decades before concerns about climate change entered the mainstream, Forsyth had his finger on the pulse of something rotten in our behavior towards the planet. It makes sense that a Scotsman would be dubious of all forms of Manifest Destiny, given his country’s own history of colonization, though Forsyth seems less interested in putting forth an argument for conservation than in interrogating the concept of legacy, and who gets to fret over what they leave behind.
The people of Ferness certainly don’t have the time or inclination to worry about such matters. There may only be a single red phone booth to communicate with the outside world, but in a twist on the typical small-town setup, the citizens are no rubes. Well aware of why Mac has come to their bay, they want to make sure they wring every last cent they can out of his company. It’s not that they don’t love where they live or think it’s worth saving. But as hotel proprietor-cum-town accountant Urquhart (Dennis Lawson) makes clear, it’s easy for outsiders to romanticize a place that’s difficult to survive in. Forsyth derisively referred to this concept in the wider culture as “the Brigadoon thing.” Yet it’s exactly what Mac will end up doing over the course of his stay there. When he looks to the skies as he’s been counseled, he’s amazed by what he sees. But for the locals the aurora borealis is just a trick of the light, so commonplace it’s barely worth noticing. Spend enough time in one place and you can even get used to miracles.
There’s not much in the way of classic suspense in Local Hero, which may in part be why Forsyth was dismissed by critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum as “a lowercase filmmaker,”, as if the concerns of ordinary people depicted with delicacy and grace couldn’t be the stuff of great drama. The rub, so to speak, doesn’t even come until over seventy minutes into the film – it turns out there’s a lone holdout to closing the deal: an eccentric beachcomber named Ben whose four miles of waterfront have been in his family for over four hundred years. The deed, he claims, is in an Edinburgh museum. A piece of history. The millions of pounds, or promise of another, warmer beach, mean nothing to him.
The villagers’ ability to “muck in” where needed threatens to take on a vigilante edge before the unexpected arrival of Happer, touching down on the bay in his helicopter. Inspired by a shared love of astronomy with Ben, he decides to scrap the refinery idea and open an institute of learning instead, dedicated to the study of sea and sky. A beautiful place is saved, but at the cost of life changing riches for the locals. Legacies are fickle things. Most of us will be lucky if we manage to live on in the memories of our immediate family. Still, despite what Happer might think, being able to put your name on something is no guarantee of how you’ll be remembered. Just ask the Sacklers, or the Kochs, or even Forsyth himself, who won his second BAFTA for directing Local Hero but hasn’t made a feature since 1999. That this may end up being his defining film is fitting.
As swiftly as he came to Scotland, now Mac must go. He returns to his apartment in Houston, with its reliable electricity and brand-name gadgets, emptying his coat pockets of the seashells he gathered on the Ferness beach. He goes out to his balcony and looks at the city in the distance, the abundant lights making a haze of the sky above. We’re not privy to his thoughts but we can guess their general direction. Is home a place? A spot you can pin on a map? A piece of land where you can stake a claim? Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe home is a ringing telephone that anyone you know could answer.
“Local Hero” is available for digital rental or purchase.