Saturday, September 23, 2023

Local Hero (1983)

(This post is a part of the 10th Annual Rule, Britannia Blogathon Hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts)

This past February 17th marked 40 years since the release of a remarkable film, Local Hero (1983) directed by Bill Forsyth.  Bill Forsyth had already received attention for his movies That Sinking Feeling (1979) and Gregory's Girl (1981). While I would not see That Sinking Feeling until later, I had already seen Gregory's Girl when Local Hero came out. When I finally got to see Local Hero on VHS, I was not disappointed. It remains one of my all-time favourite movies to this day.

Local Hero centres on "Mac" MacIntyre (Peter Riegert), a young executive at Knox Oil and Gas in Houston, Texas. Because his name sounds "Scottish," Mac finds himself sent to the Highlands of Scotland by the head of Knox Oil and Gas, the eccentric Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster), to acquire the tiny village of Furness to open a refinery there. Once there, Mac learns that the plan is to entirely replace Furness with the refinery. While Mac grows to love Furness and have doubts about the clearing the village to make way for a refinery, the villagers are more than eager to sell out to Knox Oil and Gas. As it turns out, there is one holdout: elderly beachcomber Ben Knox (Fulton MacKay). Ben owns the entirety of the beach by way of  a grant from the Lord of the Isles to one of his ancestors. Without the beach, there can be no refinery, and Ben absolutely refuses to sell.

Local Hero emerged from producer David Puttnam and director Bill Forsyth. The two men had met in London in the late Seventies. At the time Bill Forsyth gave David Putnam the script to Gregory's Girl in hopes that he would produce it, but Mr. Puttnam turned it down, thinking it was too similar to That Sinking Feeling. After seeing Gregory's Girl, David Puttnam admitted to regretting not accepting the movie. The two would meet again, quite by chance, in a tobacconist shop in Soho. At the time Bill Forsyth was busy editing Gregory's Girl, while David Puttnam was finishing up Chariots of Fire (1981). It was only a matter of days before David Puttnam asked Bill Forsyth to attend a screening of the classic Whisky Galore! (1949). The Ealing Studios movie is set on the tiny, fictional Scottish island of Todday in the Outer Hebries where the supply of whisky runs out during World War II.

David Puttnam had good reason for wanting Bill Forsyth to see Whisky Galore!. The producer had been researching the Scottish oil industry, in particular the oil boom in Shetland in the early Seventies. What struck David Puttnam is that the Shetlanders actually welcomed the oil companies, in hopes that the large amount of money generated by oil would in turn help them. David Puttnam then talked Bill Forsyth into developing the idea for what would become Local Hero.

In the book Local Hero: The Making of the Film by Allan Hunter and Mark Astaire, Bill Forsyth said of Local Hero, "I saw it along the lines of a Scottish Beverly Hillbillies--what would happen to a small community when it suddenly became immensely rich--that was the germ of the idea and the story built itself from there. It seemed to contain a similar theme to Brigadoon (1954), which also involved some Americans coming over to Scotland, becoming part of a small community, being changed by the experience and affecting the place in their own way. I feel close in spirit to the Powell and Pressburger feeling the idea of trying to present a cosmic viewpoint to people, but through the most ordinary things. And because this film and I Know Where I Am Going (1945) are set in Scotland, I've felt from the beginning that we're walking the same...treading the same water."

Initially Local Hero centred on the character of the local hotel owner, who would tackle the American oil company and its representative (Mac in the movie). Over time the story began to focus more on Mac, the American oil company representative who initially finds himself out of place in Furness. Although today, it might seem difficult for fans of Local Hero to see anyone as Mac but Peter Reigert. Bill Forsyth had also considered  as were Michael Douglas and Henry Winkler. From the beginning Burt Lancaster was considered for the role of eccentric billionaire Felix Happer, although casting him presented some problems. Burt Lancaster wanted a $2 million salary. That would have been a third of the movie's entire budget. Fortunately, Warner Bros. made producer David Puttnam an American distribution deal once they knew Burt Lancaster was to be in the movie and as a result provided the money to pay for the Hollywood legend.

As might be expected, aside from Peter Riegert and Burt Lancaster, the majority of the cast of Local Hero was comprised of British actors. Fulton MacKay, who played beachcomber Ben Knox, had a career on stage and on screen going back to the late Forties. Many might remember him best for his appearances on such classic television shows as The Saint and The Avengers. Denis Lawson, who played hotel owner and accountant Gordon Urquhart, played Wedge Antilles in both Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980). On television he'd appeared in episodes of Dr. Finlay's Casebook and Bergerac. For Peter Capaldi, who played local Knox Oil and Gas representative Danny Oldsen (and hence Mac's guide to Furness), Local Hero was only his second film. Of course, he has since become known as Malcolm Tucker on The Thick of It and the Twelfth Doctor on Doctor Who.

Of course, among the stars of Local Hero must be counted the Scottish landscape. The movie required a small Scottish village with an extensive beach. As a result, production designer Roger Murray-Leach scouted the Scottish coast for just such a village. Ultimately a small fishing village called Pennan, located in Aberdeenshire, was chosen. Unfortunately, while Pennan's only street did overlook the sea, it was not particularly close to the beach. For the beach in Local Hero, Camusdarach Beach, just south of the estuary of River Morar and between the village of Arisaig, in Lochaber, Inverness-shire and the village of Morar, Inverness-shire, was used.

Unfortunately, once completed Local Hero would run afoul of test screenings, as many a movie has. While the test screenings were positive, they were not overwhelmingly so. It as after the last test screening that Warner Bros. executives sat down with Bill Forsyth and even offered to pay the bill to shoot a new ending in which Mac doesn't leave Scotland. This did not sit well with Bill Forsyth, who hardly wanted to go back to Scotland simply to shoot a new scene. In the end, Warner Bros. would not get the ending they wanted, although it is hard to argue Local Hero does not have a happy ending.

Local Hero premiered on February 17 1983 in New York City. It opened in the Untied States on February 18 1983, which also happened to be Presidents Day weekend that year. That weekend it made $23,567 that weekend, which was actually quite respectable given it was competing against movies like Gandhi and Tootsie. For the most part Local Hero got good reviews. Janet Maslin in The New York Tiems wrote, "Genuine fairy tales are rare; so is film-making that is thoroughly original in an unobtrusive way. Bill Forsyth's quirky disarming Local Hero is both." Roger Ebert loved the film, writing, "Here is a small film to treasure, a loving, funny, understated portrait of a small Scottish town and its encounter with a giant oil company." In The Village Voice Andrew Sarris described the movie as "...a joyously grown-up, warm-hearted, and clear-head meditation on the vagaries of contemporary existence."

Local Hero did respectably well at the box office. It earned $5.895, 761 in the United States and £487,437 in the United Kingdom. While that might not sound like a lot, given its budget was only around $3 million, it did make a small profit. Of course, it would also be shown on premium cable channels and it would be released on VHS and still later on DVD. Like Gregory's Girl before it, it would become a cult film.

Indeed, Local Hero has left behind a legacy few movies do. There is a minor planet, 7345 Happer, named for Felix Happer from the film, who was absolutely  obsessed with astronomy. I have always suspected that the hit American television series Northern Exposure, in which a New York City doctor must adjust to life in a small Alaskan town, and possibly the cult series Everwood, in which a big city brain surgeon moves to the small town of Everwood, both drew inspiration from Local Hero. The movie also inspired a 2019 musical, Local Hero, which premiered at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh.

As I said earlier, Local Hero remains one of my favourite movies of all time. Indeed, I think it says a lot about how many people do not realize how good they really have it. The villagers of Furness, tired of their hard lives, are anxious to simply sell the village to Knox Oil and Gas. It is an outsider. Mac, who realizes just how special and how magical Furness really is. What is more, Local Hero moves at a deliberate pace. We are given time to get to know the characters. And while it does move quite leisurely, Local Hero is never slow. It really doesn't have a plot, so much as things simply happen as they would in real life. Indeed, there are a number of coincidences in the movie that appear to have been created with intent. There are also some unanswered questions. Is Marina (Jenny Seagrove), the Knox Oil and Gas oceanographer who is so much at home in the sea, actually a selkie? Who is the child always wheeled around Furness by a group of men?

If I have only one criticism of Local Hero it is that the movie is largely dominated by men. Of the major characters, only two of them are women, and it seems likely that Marina is not even human (yes, I honestly think she is a selkie). Jennifer Black, as Stella Urquhart is the only woman in the village with an important role in the film.

Regardless, I do love Local Hero. In many respects, I think Janet Maslin in her New York Times review is very much correct--Local Hero is indeed a fairy tale. It does not surprise me that I am not alone in my love for Local Hero. It is very much a cult film that remains popular to this day.


Brian Schuck said...

Thank you for reminding me of this wonderfully quirky and poignant film. It's always fun to read your informative background on these productions. It's nice I suppose that the producers and Warner Bros. managed a win-win deal to pay Burt Lancaster his asking price and settle the U.S. distribution. Lancaster's presence was probably the difference that put the film in the black. Also, I love films that leave a few things unanswered and challenge the imagination.
Thanks also for hosting this great blogathon!

Virginie Pronovost said...

Wonderfully informative and well-nuanced review, Terence! I love Forsyth's Gregory's Girl and I saw Local Hero but that was a long time ago. However, I have the DVD at home, so maybe I'm due for a second watch!

Karen said...

Peter Riegert and Burt Lancaster!? I don't know how this one slipped by me, but I'm glad to know about it now. I really enjoyed reading about it, Terence, and I will be looking for it.

Debbie Vega said...

This is one of my very favorite films in the world and am amazed how little I knew about its origins! Thanks so much for filling in the history of this wonderful movie!

I can't imagine the ending being changed, it is so utterly perfect. Glad they stuck with it.

It's a darn shame Forsyth no longer makes movies. I worked at a multiplex movie theater where Gregory's Girl was playing and could always tell who had just come out from seeing it from the big grins on their faces.

Paula said...

Great review, Terry. Would you believe, I've never seen this? I enjoyed learning the backstory, you just moved it to the top of my list.

Marianne said...

Local Hero is one of those films that I would swear I have seen, but it's been so long that I don't remember much. Definitely should see it again. I like Peter Riegert. I thought he was wonderful in Crossing Delancey. (Not a fan of Animal House, though.)Thanks so much for the reminder about Local Hero, and thanks so much for hosting a great blogathon!

Silver Screenings said...

So many people speak of Local Hero with incredible fondness, and what's not to love? It's surprising how many people – and how many different types of people – have seen this film and fell in love with it. That speaks to its timeless, classic nature.

Loved what you said about the town and the bay themselves are characters in this film. They definitely are.

Rebecca Deniston said...

This film sounds great! I'm with Paula--I've never seen it, either. Thanks again for hosting this blogathon. :-)