Last month, the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh premiered a new musical adaptation of Bill Forsyth’s acclaimed 1983 film Local Hero. As well as being an endearing love letter to Scotland, the film makes a quiet and intelligent comment on climate change and our collective exploitation of the world. Awareness of green issues has increased in recent years, making Local Hero highly relevant and, in light of the new musical, it deserves a revisit.
Set during the 1980s oil boom and the rampant capitalism that followed, Local Hero tells the archetypal story of man’s ‘return to nature’. It follows ‘Mac’ McIntyre (Peter Riegert), an American of Hungarian parentage (despite his Scottish name) who works for an eminent Texan oil company, Knox. The company’s CEO is the powerful but eccentric Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster). He assigns Mac (believing that the Scots are ‘his people’) the task of negotiating the purchase of the Scottish coastal village, Ferness, supposedly to develop an oil refinery. But Harper is actually an astronomy enthusiast and is more anxious that his employee provides reports on the stars visible from the area.
Upon his arrival, Mac encounters an array of comic and idiosyncratic characters, including a fellow Knox representative, played by a young and gawky Peter Capaldi. While Local Hero generally paints an idealistic image of Scottish Highland communities, it is grounded in the realistic, if cynical belief that its inhabitants find money as alluring as everybody else. Rather than opposing the environmentally hostile oil refinery, the Ferness community are comically excited by the prospect of a million-dollar compensation. Forsyth maintains this subtle, almost hyperreal sense of humour throughout. The comedy is neither glaring nor side-splitting, but charming and artful. It is perfectly in-keeping with the film’s quirks and eccentricities, while simultaneously lending the picture a heart-warming tone.
But it is with its visual and aural qualities that Local Hero truly triumphs. Forsyth’s stunning cinematography harmonises perfectly with Mark Knopfler’s introspective soundtrack. Forsyth shoots brightly-coloured sunsets and other-worldly northern lights that are reflected in the glistening Atlantic Ocean, making Ferness an utterly magical place. Consistent with this fairy-tale charm are the romantic subplots, one of which unfolds between Danny (Capaldi) and the enigmatic marine biologist Marina (Jenny Seagrove), an alluring pseudo-mermaid. In terms of the score, Knopfler takes ancient Scottish melodies and reworks them using modern synthesiser and electric guitar. The old and the unfamiliar merge in a beautifully understated way, reminding us that earthly paradise does exist and it is in nature that we may find it.
Mac, silhouetted against the vast marine and celestial paradise, finds this paradise and is transformed. Initially a money-driven, penthouse-dwelling, Porsche-driving materialist, he falls in love with Scotland, and is prepared to renounce his job and possessions to stay there. Mac’s digital watch, symbolic of eighties technology and materialism, is washed over by the waves that lap the shore. Nature consumes his watch, just as it starts to settle in his soul.
The beauty of the land, sea and sky exert a moral force in Local Hero. Towards its end, Happer arrives in Ferness to finalise the oil refinery negotiations. But such is his awe of the landscape and the firmament above it that he proposes to establish a scientific institute instead. Rather than exploit nature for his own gain, he resolves to invest in humanity’s understanding and appreciation of the world.
Local Hero is a truly timeless masterpiece. It is a declaration of love for the sea, a theme that has perhaps never been more potent than it is today. If we do not take care, the forces of capitalism, materialism and pollution will destroy our magical, natural world. Local Hero endorses the simple life and suggests that in it we will find genuine fulfilment and heroism. The character of Mac reveals not merely that material success is unsustainable, but that it does not equate to happiness. Forsyth beseeches us to treasure the world before it is too late, and whether one experiences that message in the cinema or in the theatre, it is one worth admiring.