Lone Star Cinema: Local Hero


Peter Riegert, Burt Lancaster and Peter Capaldi in Local Hero

Just a few weeks ago, there was much buzz around the internet about the new Doctor picked for the BBC series Doctor Who: Peter Capaldi.  Sure, he's best known now for his acerbic Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It and In the Loop, but Local Hero is what first brought Capaldi to my attention many moons ago. It seems a good time to revisit the 1983 film about a Houston oilman's visit to a small Scottish town.

The film opens to jangly guitar music as Mac (Peter Riegert) navigates a highway in Houston. He is about to be assigned a trip to Scotland in hopes he can negotiate a deal to buy out the seaside village of Ferness.  The company for which he works, Knox Industries, has plans to gut the town and place an oil refinery on that coast.

The head of this company is Felix Happer, played by Burt Lancaster. Happer lives in a penthouse atop the company's downtown office building, somewhat closed off from the world except for abrasive visits from his therapist and phone calls from prime ministers. Happer is an astronomy enthusiast and instructs Mac, before he sends him off, "Keep an eye on Virgo for me." 

The open skies, landscape and other natural elements of Ferness -- such as the bunny that Mac and his young Aberdeen colleague Danny Oldsen (Capaldi) hit during a foggy drive -- serve as contrast to the skyscrapers and fast-moving world of downtown Houston. Mac acclimates to the slower pace of the village. Even as the deal is in the works, and all villagers but one are interested, he goes wading in seaside pools to collect shells. He starts incorporating sweaters into his daily outfit, and grows an attractive scruff.

Given that Local Hero was filmed during the Thatcher years, there are many aspects of the movie that seem dated now. A Scottish accountant (Denis Lawson) helping a Russian sailor with his finances was likely a bigger deal during the Cold War, although the film remains very laid-back about it. Honestly, Local Hero keeps a relaxed vibe throughout. Things will happen, or they won't. We get the idea that everybody will be okay with whatever is decided.

Another facet of the film that seems dated, although this kind of thing certainly still occurs in recent film, is the shortage of screen time or dialogue with any female characters. Marina (Jenny Seagrove), a marine biologist kept in the dark about the refinery plans, is the only woman who gets to speak much. She is very bright, her lab colleagues tell Mac and Danny, yet the camera focuses on her backside in a swimsuit as we see her from the men's perspective. Mac drunkenly confesses his feelings for Stella, the accountant/hotel owner's wife, to her husband, but I had to wonder why. As far as I could tell she only has about five or six lines in the film. Perhaps she and Mac had some offscreen discussions where they got to know each other better?

If we ignore the male-gaziness of the film, Local Hero is a quaint little flick with some bizarre aspects. Lancaster's quirkiness as Happer and Riegert's quiet reflectiveness in his role of Mac make this movie memorable. Any true-blue Capaldi fans should see the film -- his bumbling Danny is adorable.

As far as I could find, Local Hero is no longer available on DVD. Locally I Love Video has it on VHS, or you can stream it through Amazon or Warner Archive.

Local/Texas ties: While a large part of the action occurs in Scotland, the film also shot on location in Houston.

[Still via disgruntledscotsman]

Local Hero

The movie is very relaxed, kind of episodic, with odd, somewhat disconnected conversations of seemingly little importance, and a sense that the town is a tiny little place in a vast universe. The last time I saw it, I was visiting Colorado, and it was on TV early in the morning when I still had time to kill before seeing a friend. It had exactly the right tone for that time of day. The soundtrack featuring Mark Knopfler is worth seeking out.