Local Hero is one of my all-time favorite movies. I can watch it again and again, year after year. Each time I see something new, and each time I see something familiar. It is my yearly pilgrimage to Scotland to visit old friends and homey places.
The setting is a charming small town called Ferness. The town is geographically and economically isolated. It consists of a small row of houses, pressed between a cliff and the sea. There is a pub, a tiny hotel, a church, and one red phone box.
The inhabitants of Ferness are good, kind, small-town folk. Fishermen pull a living from the sea and everyone else makes a living however they can, doubling up on jobs when necessary. They may appear quirky at first, but once you get to know them, they are no more unusual than your own friends and family.
Ferness sounds like an idyllic town, ripe for a fairy tale. The film does indeed start out that way. There is an uncaring villain who works for corporate developers. There is a town full of peasants in danger of losing their charming homes, their rustic land, their simple livelihood to make way for big business. There is even a mermaid.
What actually happens is less a fairy tale and more human nature.
A big oil company sets out to buy the scenic little town on a bay in north Scotland. It plans to replace the town with an oil refinery.
The oil company sends “Mac” MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) from acquisitions to buy the land. (He’s actually Hungarian, but he’s got the right name for the job.) He’d rather deal over the phone, but the company insists he be on-site. He arrives and meets Danny (Peter Capaldi), his assistant while in Scotland, and Marina (Jenny Seagrove), a marine biologist working for the Aberdeen branch of Knox Oil, who wants to turn the bay into a marine sanctuary. (She knows nothing of the company’s plans, and wouldn’t believe them even if she knew.)
Mac and Danny head up to Ferness where they meet Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson), hotel proprietor, accountant, and barkeep. Mac confirms to Gordon the rumor that the oil company wants to buy all of Ferness. He entrusts Gordon, as the local accountant, to meet with the populace and work out some numbers for the purchase of the town. In the meantime, Gordon suggests that Mac take a look around; get to know the place.
Mac spends the day settling in and walking around the beach in his suit and tie with Danny trailing behind. They spot an old man in the distance, doing the same.
The townspeople of this paradise are thrilled at the chance to sell their land and become instant millionaires. That night, when Mac has to call home, he learns his name and reputation have preceded him. He has become a local hero to these people he’ll make rich, and they instantly take a liking to him.
The next day Mac has lightened up a bit. He still has his suit on, but he fits in better. The locals are starting to accept him as part of the population, and he’s even learned a name or two. Eventually Mac slips farther and farther into the local life. Each scene shows Mac in less and less formal clothes as he grows more and more fond of Ferness. Meanwhile, Gordon carries on the business of arranging for the sale of the land.
As the deal draws near, the locals call a ceilidh (pronounced “Kay-Lee”, it means town meeting) to socialize and talk about the deal. Everyone gets drunk and talks about how they will spend their millions. Grizzled fishermen argue over the relative merits of Maseratis and Rolls-Royces.
Everyone has a great time with the possible exception of Mac. Mac has grown to love this town and its people. The ceilidh only cements the sense of community that Mac wants in his life, that only the undeveloped village could provide. Ironically, he will be the destroyer of the village, and even more ironically, he will be the only one who feels its loss.
At the emotional apex of the story, Mac, uninhibited with drink, asks Gordon to trade with him. Everything. The car, the house, the job. Mac wants to trade his Porsche, his six-figure salary, and his stock options, for Gordon’s life in Ferness, doing odd jobs, running the hotel, being the local bartender, and living a simple life. Nothing comes of the proposition, but it is the point when Mac sheds his shell and bares his soul.
The deal is nearly sealed when, the next day, Mac and Gordon get a shock. Ben (Fulton Mackay), the old man who walks the beach, actually owns the beach, and he won’t sell. Mac’s boss, Mr. Happer (Burt Lancaster) flies to Ferness to close the deal himself.
Happer and Ben, who share an interest in astronomy, become fast friends and somehow, Old Ben manages to change Happer’s mind, at least about the refinery. Happer still wants to acquire the site, but not to destroy it. He wants to build an observatory, an institute for scientific research. Marina was right all along.
Nearly everyone is happy with Happer’s new arrangement. The townspeople will still get to sell their property. Happer gets his bay. Ben keeps his beach. Marina gets her laboratory, and Danny gets Marina.
But not everyone wins. In the most devastating moment of the film, Happer tells Mac to pack up and head back to Houston immediately to take care of business from that end. It becomes painfully clear how far Mac has fallen in love with Ferness—when he gets the order to return, he is in a sweater, he has five o’clock shadow, and he’s eating an orange that Ben found on the beach. When the film cuts to him in his creaseless suit and crisp tie, we understand what a transformation he had undergone while in town.
Mac obeys his boss, but before he leaves he puts his outer shell back on. He insists on paying for his stay at the hotel, he shaves, he dresses properly, and his businesslike manner almost conceals the disappointment in his face.
He walks into his cold, cramped, fluorescent apartment, smells the sea shells he brought back, and hangs up the snapshots he took of Ferness.
He steps out on the balcony and looks out at the bleak neon skyline of Houston, with its traffic and sirens, longing for the friendly open streets of Ferness.
Mac can’t return and see Ferness. Work will presumably keep him in Houston, and development will soon forever change the place.
But I can go back, year after year, and I do. With each viewing, the simple joy of life at Ferness, and the transitory pricelessness of that particular time and place becomes more and more dear.