Last Night I Watched: ‘Local Hero’

If 2020 has offered anything, it is providing the chance for everyone to spend more time in their local area. Whether locked down in university or where they’ve lived since birth, the inability to travel has allowed more time to appreciate – or yearn to escape – a place of belonging. The examination of place, heritage and where we come from is a timeless theme explored in Local Hero, a 1983 Scottish film written and directed by Bill Forsyth.

Local Hero’s intriguing premise is in taking someone out of their comfortable surroundings and thrusting them into a new location. Mac (Peter Riegert) is a Texan working at Knox Oil and Gas, a company wishing to expand their drilling for fossil fuels internationally. Given a challenge, Mac is sent by his eccentric boss Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) to Ferness – a fictional Scottish village – to purchase the entire land for a new oil refinery. This is no mean feat.

By doing this, Local Hero sparks an interesting philosophical question that still faces policy makers today. How are the needs of communities today balanced with those of future generations? Purchasing the land would allow future households to have more oil and gas (this was 1983, so any discussion of fossil fuel sustainability is non-existent). However, it would involve the permanent destruction and abolition of a village that has served a community over a long period of time.

Local Hero sparks an interesting philosophical question that still faces policy makers today

One of the film’s most surprising features is how willing the residents are for the village land to be purchased and sold. Denis Lawson excellently plays Gordon Urquhart, the local hotel owner and businessman desperate to ensure the negotiation can be done. I was amazed at how relaxed the villages seemed about their destruction of their place of home, easily tempted by the promise of a vast payoff. Perhaps a reflection of the 1980s growing march towards capitalism against communism, but the absence of any challenge from losing the village was unusual at the very least.

Local Hero is the very antithesis of an action-packed film. I love how Bill Forsyth captured the beautiful sense of place in Ferness. In reality, many parts of the Scottish coast were filmed and it’s a wonderful sight. The rich landscape, soaring skies and eternal nature of the sea suggest, whatever industry is built, the never-ending landscape shall always remain. That is brilliantly contrasted to the tight village nature of the community, with key institutions like the pub and church making Ferness seem a traditional place established for centuries.

Mac’s development as he explores this new landscape becomes the bedrock of the film’s development. A rather young Peter Capaldi, decades before he steps inside the TARDIS, plays Danny Oldsen, a Scottish representative based initially in Aberdeen. Jointly responsible for also ensuring the village can be sold, his mental and physical journey is a treat to watch. While a romantic flame is lit with Marina (Jenny Seagrove) a research assistant, the real character development comes from wondering whether an oil refinery is the best use of the land’s resources.

Local Hero is a moving, well-rounded film putting character and place at its heart

The most influential character in Ferness’ future is perhaps Ben Knox (Fulton Mackay). The very definition of living in the past, he’s a beachcomber residing in a shack by the sea. Owner of the very beach they’d need to develop the oil refinery, the open discussions between past and future are moving, intelligent and revealing. With Knox refusing to sell, the one real moment of conflict allows for an in-depth examination into the characters, what they want and how far they will go to achieve it.

Local Hero is therefore a moving, well-rounded film putting character and place – rather than action – at its heart. It is a film fundamentally built around the importance of encounters and having new experiences. Balancing the real and current village with the theoretical prospect of mass industry, Mac and Danny Oldsen have to use their powers of persuasion and promise of riches. The political aspects, while implicitly mentioned, are never overstated and don’t take over the meaningful personal discussions. Although it portrays itself as a simple, slow, calm film, Local Hero is one that cannot be easily forgotten.

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