‘Local Hero’ and Repurposing the Past

Great British Movies is a column that’s all about what it says on the tin. In this edition, Daniel McGowan revisits Local Hero.

Local Hero (1983) often finds itself included amongst Scotland’s most identifiable and important films. Following his coming-of-age hit Gregory’s Girl (1981), Bill Forsyth’s next project increased in scale along with its budget. The film follows Mac (Peter Riegert), an executive sent to the fictional village of Ferness to settle negotiations of buying the area and its surrounding land for Knox Oil and Gas. However, during his time in Ferness, Mac begins to discover the benefits of life outside his comfort zone, returning home a new man.

Local Hero received predominantly positive reviews following its release. The film’s light-hearted tone, comedic riffs, and stunning vistas were its main attraction, with reviewers quick to mention its “mystical” aura. However, as time progressed it has been recognised for its self-aware maturity and understanding of cinematic representations of Scottish identity. Specifically, in its awareness of representations regarding rural Scotland and its inhabitants. Forsyth plays with stereotypes established by previous films in his deviation of their predictable story beats, providing a narrative that respects Scottish classics while carrying its own distinctiveness.

Pictured above: Brigadoon (1954)

Popular representative forms of Scottish identity referenced in Local Hero are Tartanry and Kailyard. Both originating in Scottish literature throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, discussion of these in relation to cinematic representation was popularised in the 1982 book Scotch Reels: Scotland in Cinema and Television. Tartanry can often be identified by a subject’s overreliance on stereotypical signifiers when relating to Scottish culture, overuse of tartan, bagpipes, and myth. A filmic example is Brigadoon (1954), a musical/romance depicting a Scottish village that awakens from the mist once every hundred years. The film is seemingly set to the beautiful backdrop of the Scottish Highlands, ironically all shot in an American MGM soundstage.

The representation of Kailyard is not as obvious a caricature. Instead, it presents a sentimental view of a pre-industrialised Scotland. Usually depicting small tight-knit disconnected communities typically interacting with a representative of contemporary society. An example being I know Where I’m Going! (1945), a film that follows Joan Webster (a middle-class Englishwoman) traveling to marry a wealthy industrialist but finds herself trapped on Mull island due to bad weather. She then meets Torquil MacNeil, a local of a nearby island. As time passes, she instead begins to fall for Torquil along with the rural attitudes she once thought unusual. Both these forms of representation have received understandable criticism for their over-simplification of Scottish identity presented as regressive compared to contemporary societies.

Local Hero sparingly refers to the stereotypes of Tartanry. Examples that do are showcased in a light-hearted manner. The earliest being a reference to the aforementioned Brigadoon in which the village of Ferness is uncovered following the dissipation of fog, much like the village of Brigadoon that appears from the mist. The other major example being the character of Marina (Jenny Seagrove) and the myriad of clues supporting her as “a real-life mermaid,” referencing the myth of selkies that originated in the Northern Isles of Scotland. These myths depicted their relationships with men who would coerce them to shed their natural skin and stay with them on land. After much longing to return, selkies would typically leave their families to return to the sea.

This is an ending scene in Local Hero, as Marina dives into the ocean, ignoring Danny as he struggles to swim out and reach her. This is as far outside the realm of realism Forsyth dares to venture. Though it formulates that “mystical” tone, it always remains ambiguous, never collapsing into absurdity. Marina still uses scuba gear and her interest in the ocean is her job. Additionally, rather than Danny coercing her onto land, she instead appears deliberate in her actions by using Danny to push for a marine laboratory on the island. These examples are playful in nature, and much like the myths themselves, they allow the viewer to decide whether they believe them.

Pictured above: Local Hero (1983)

Local Hero at first appears reminiscent of a Kailyard tale. However, it is interesting to observe how Forsyth deviates from the usual tropes. Though Mac represents this familiar outsider role while he gains an appreciation for Ferness and its people, he is never given an ultimatum so common in Kailyard tales. Unlike I Know Where I’m Going (1945), Mac doesn’t stay in Scotland for love. Unlike The Maggie (1954), he doesn’t destroy his possessions in order to save something with historic significance. He doesn’t even close the deal in the end. Mac is purely an observer, though a familiar aspect of this role, he is literally defined by it. Characterising how Scotland is presented through Kailyard narratives, he is so fascinated with its visual romance that he lacks knowledge of its reality.

This is also due to the way in which the villagers present themselves. Unbeknownst to Mac, they want out of their hardworking lifestyles. Gordon (Denis Lawson) implies the difficulty in them selling their homes to simply increase the size of the offer. These are not the villagers in Rockets Galore! (1958), protesting against disruption of their locale. Instead, they remain understanding, allowing the perceptions of their attitudes to secretly increase their earnings. While the character of Ben (Fulton Mackay) still epitomises this characteristic by refusing to sell his beach, it still deviates heavily from the idea that everyone is content in their rural lifestyle. I Know Where I’m Going has Catriona (Pamela Brown) stating, “Yes, but money isn’t everything” when presented with the idea of increasing their income. In Local Hero, this notion is suddenly challenged with Gordon declaring, “We won’t have anywhere to call home, but we’ll be stinkin rich”. This can be linked with Scotland itself, playing into these stereotypes in an effort to increase revenue in a worldwide market, the Scottish tourism industry exemplifying this.

Even the island is not presented in the typical fashion. Though the film’s iconic telephone box remains a signifier of Mac’s only connection to his life in America, the characters of Victor (Christopher Rozycki) and Reverend MacPherson (Gyearbuor Asante) are clear examples of the island’s international connections (MacPherson’s reason for staying in Ferness is itself reminiscent of Kailyard tales). This breaks the illusion that this village is purely a secluded sanctuary for our protagonist’s personal progression, situating it within a contemporary worldview. Additionally, the ending diverges from an expected one. Though Ben keeps his beach, tradition does not simply succeed. The Happer Institute works to signify a merging of both tradition and innovation, modern industry working to develop a better understanding of its history. This too describes Local Hero. Forsyth mentions the pressures of being labelled as a Scottish filmmaker and the impossible task of single-handedly defining a country:

“I don’t know what Scotland means to the guy next to me on the bus. It’s too dumb an idea to want to nail a culture. It comes from making stuff, and the accumulation of that stuff finally reflects a culture.” – Interview with Steven MacKenzie for Big Issue (2016).

Local Hero feels like an accumulation of mainstream interpretations of Scottish identity, understanding that it cannot simply define it alone. The film is a love letter to the films that inspired it, recognising their shortcomings, but still successfully capturing the mystical inspiration they exuded.

Pictured above: Red Road (2006)

The Scottish film industry has continued to critique and evolve throughout the years, those same widespread landscapes captured in Local Hero met with echoes of Trainspotting’s Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) screaming, “It’s a shite state of affairs to be in Tommy, and all the fresh air in the world won’t make any fucking difference!” A decade later, a mass influx of valuable storytellers put their own stamp on Scottish cinema. Danny Boyle’s erratically abrasive Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting (1996) garnered worldwide appeal. Ken Loach’s socially critical approach brought us My Name Is Joe (1998), Sweet Sixteen (2002) and Ae Fond Kiss… (2004). Scottish/Danish collaboration witnessed Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) and Scottish additions to the Dogme 95 movement in Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006) and Morag McKinnon’s Donkeys (2010). Lynne Ramsay’s poetic presentation with swells of surrealism in Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002) and Karen Gillan’s darkly comedic The Party is Just Beginning (2018) are only a few in an expanding list proving the complexity of Scottish identity.

In recent years Scotland’s industry has made an unprecedented profit due to television productions like Outlander, films like Outlaw King (2018), Mary Queen of Scots (2018), and collaborations with Hollywood blockbusters such Fast & Furious 9 (2021) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Amazon is set to create its first major series solely produced in Scotland with The Rig. With the ever-increasing presence of high-budget US ventures, it will be interesting to see if the results are as positive as those found in Local Hero. Our own Happer Institute, or the profitable, though less culturally progressive, option.

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