There’s a warming pleasure in being surprised by a long-time favorite movie that unexpectedly pops up on television. Such was my great good fortune when our Public Television station recently delivered an uncut and uninterrupted broadcast of Local Hero (1983. Oh, my. Almost thirty years ago), written and directed by Bill Forsyth.
Local Hero’s plot setup deliberately and deliciously crosses us up. Knox Oil and Gas, a large and rapacious oil company based in Houston, sends out “Mac” McIntire, a hotshot young executive, to buy up an entire village – a remote beach town in Western Scotland – with plans of converting the area into a giant refinery.
Insulated from the corrupting effects of modern society, Ferness, sparkles with quaintness and “pixie dust.” The village innkeeper, Gordon, is also the mayor and the town accountant (so he’ll represent the town in the upcoming negotiation.) Though holding down three jobs, Gordon determinedly makes time for a startling number of romantic interludes with his spectacular wife, Stella.
So that’s the set-up – an “all business” American, dispatched to an idyllic Scottish village, his heartless employers bent on turning the place into yet another venue for profit and pollution. This is the standard arrangement for a story in which “the People” band together and rise up in protest, to protect their pristine ecosystem and their cherished “Quality of Life.”
The surprise twist in Local Hero?
The townspeople can’t wait to sell out, a secret they must keep to themselves, in hopes of driving up the price.
The big “third act” obstacle is that beachcomber – and beach owner – Ben Knox (whose last name is mysteriously the same as the oil company’s) refuses to sign off on the deal, preferring instead to hold onto, and continue “working”, the beach.
Another major thread in the story is “Mac’s’” gradual thawing and ultimate conversion to the Ferness lifestyle, to the point, where, while drunk, he proposes trading lives with Gordon, Gordon returning to an advancing career in Houston, and “Mac” inheriting Gordon’s responsibilities, including Stella.
The story is fresh, fine and fun. But what captures my heart every time are the multiple quirkily delightful little touches Local Hero provides.
A few examples:
- Throughout the movie, Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster), head of Knox Oil is continually hounded by a “psychologist”, whose therapeutic approach involves verbally, and if Happer would let him, physically abusing his “patient”, in hopes of curing his, unspecified, psychological difficulties.
- Ferness’s spiritual leader is a black minister from Nigeria.
- Though the village is entirely traffic-free, whenever “Mac” crosses the town’s only street, he gets perilously close to being run over by a driver on a motor scooter.
- A Marine biologist, aptly named Marina, may actually be a mermaid, a revealing “tell” – aside from her ability to remain under water for astonishing periods of time – being that at one point in the movie, she exposes distinctly webbed toes.
This leads to a wordless scene, in which we discover Danny, a youthful Scottish Knox Oil employee smitten with Marina, lying underwater in a bathtub.
Finally, Danny rises up, immediately checking a stopwatch, to determine how long he’s remained submerged. Danny then takes a long, deep breath, and once again drops back beneath the surface, in an unexplained but understood attempt to develop underwater breathing capacities that will impress Marina.
- Victor, a middle-aged, Russian fisherman comes ashore on his annual visit, to reconnect with friends and also check on his, unashamedly capitalist, financial investments, dutifully managed by Gordon.
During the evening’s communal gathering, Victor gets up to sing “his song”, a country-and-western swing tune, whose first line which a thickly Russian-accented Victor energetically brays out is, “Yes, I was born to be a cowboy…”
The upbeat ending is a win for everyone, except perhaps “Mac”, who is ordered back to Houston, with only a pocketful of seashells to remind him of the heaven-on-earth he has temporarily called home. Throw in the “Northern Lights”, a meteor shower, and a primally haunting score by Mark Knofler (of “Dire Straights”), and you have a movie “critics have called” – I love that meaningless phrase – “whimsical”, “wry”, a “warm and deceptively slight comedy.”
I call it magical, enchanting, funny, deeply satisfying and sublime. And I recommend it highly.
Unless you like noisier comedy.
In which case, I’d stay away.