I grew up in small towns. When I was 10, we moved from a town of around 4,000 to a town of about 200. The town had no cable and no video store. No school. No restaurants. No library. Hell, there wasn’t even a real grocery store. 4,000 and 200 may not seem like much of a difference, but as a kid, it felt like we’d moved from the city to the Moon.
Fortunately, home video was a thing, and since my aunt managed a video store in a nearby town, we were never short on movies to watch. Those movies were everything to me. They were a window into a world where extraordinary people did extraordinary things in extraordinary places. I wanted to be like those people. I wanted to do what those people were doing. And I wanted to live where those people were living. But I couldn’t. Because I was a kid. And I was stuck. In a town of 200 and surrounded on three sides by cows and cow shit and the banal portrait of uninterrupted green pastures.
I felt a longing. A longing for cities. A longing for excitement. A longing for life, for living.
Local Hero is a film about longing. Mac (Peter Riegert) is a young oil man living a fast-paced, urban life. When his boss (Burt Lancaster) sends him to Ferness, a remote Scottish fishing village, to close a land deal for the future site of Knox Oil’s North Atlantic refinery, Mac is forced to adapt to the village’s slower pace. This new perspective allows Mac to re-examine what he thought he knew about his place and purpose in life, and he undergoes a kind of spiritual rebirth.
Of course none of that would have appealed to 10 year old me, because it largely concerns a man whose journey takes him in the opposite direction I was hoping to go at that young, naive age. When I left rural Texas, I knew I’d never go back, but I nevertheless grew to appreciate this seemingly inconsequential film without really ever considering why. At first, it was probably for superficial reasons. It was a favorite film of my dad’s, so I was already familiar with it. It was set in Scotland, a dreamy land I’d fantasized about since I was a child. And it was set to the music of Mark Knopfler, a man whose music would become the soundtrack to my adult life. Outside of those surface qualities, I’m not sure I really got it. But as my twenties and thirties got smaller and smaller in my rearview, it started to make more sense.
The movie takes its name from the villager’s perspective. They see Mac as a hero, because his arrival will change their fortunes. His mission to buy the village and all of the surrounding land will mean more wealth than the villagers could ever have hoped to see in their lives. But it will also mean the destruction of this pristine piece of the Scottish Highlands. Mac at first tries to get out of traveling to the site, hoping instead to close the deal by telex and remain in Houston where he is surrounded by every modern convenience a young man could hope for. But once there, he is quickly seduced by the charm of the village and the raw, undeveloped beauty of the rural landscape. He begins to covet the lives of its inhabitants. He sees purpose and meaning in their lives, a simple beauty in their close relationships with one another and with the land that is absent from his own life. The villagers, of course, are awed by this young, hotshot American businessman. He’s everything they aren’t: rich, young, worldly, savvy. They long to be a part of the vibrant world he inhabits and are eager to close the deal and take what money they can get from the American oil company and get out of rural Scotland.
The film is littered with characters who see greener grass on the other side of the fence.
There’s the local innkeeper, accountant, and financial planner, Gordon Urquhart (played by Denis Lawson, better known for his turn as X-Wing pilot Wedge Antilles in the original Star Wars movies), who fancies himself a kind of deal maker and peer of Mac. He’s bargaining on behalf of the whole village and is trying to get as much money as he can from Mac’s company so he can live out the rest of his days as a rich man. You’ve got Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi), Knox Representative and Mac’s guide, and his web-toed, marine biologist love interest, Marina (Jenny Seagrove). There’s Victor (Christopher Rozyck), the weepy, sentimental Soviet fishing boat captain who periodically visits the village to check on his investment portfolio (and his Scottish mistress and son). There’s the village’s one punk girl who doesn’t fit in and would obviously rather be anywhere but Ferness.
Even Mac’s boss, Mr. Happer, has his head in the clouds. He instructs Mac to watch the sky while he is in Scotland. “The constellation of Virgo is very prominent in the sky now in Scotland. I want you to keep an eye on Virgo for me.” Happer is convinced he’s going to find a comet and name it after himself. It’s clear he’s searching for meaning in his life. Something larger than himself. A particularly poignant scene near the beginning of the film finds Happer’s New Age therapist, Moritz, whom Happer pays to insult him with the promise of some kind of resulting catharsis, chiding him for his “empty, hollow, wasteful activity.” He asks why Happer never married and had a family, adding, “Are these human goals too simple for you?”
For Mac, at least, these simple, human goals may be exactly what has been missing from his life, and it’s devastating to watch him realize that he is complicit in the condemnation of his newfound Xanadu. It would be easy to read Local Hero as simply a movie about people who take what they have for granted. But that’s not what it is. Local Hero makes judgements on its characters and it doesn’t perceive each of their situations equally. Aside from the obvious environmental message at the heart of the film, Mac is the hero because he is uniquely placed to see Ferness for what it is: something special, worthy of love and preservation.
I’m 46 now. I have now lived in the city for longer than I lived in the country. But I have begun to slow down. When I go back home to visit my parents, I appreciate the slower pace of life. The lack of traffic and noise. That people still wave as you pass each other on the road. I long for that peace. For that connection to the natural world. To the sky. To people. And I think I finally understand what Mac felt at the end of the film when he returned to his cold, empty apartment in Houston.