March 2, 2013


A MODEST MASTERPIECE : "Local Hero" turns 30 this month. In this article, from five years ago, Jasper Rees spoke to those who made the film (Jasper Rees, Intelligent Life)

"Local Hero" came about when the producer David Puttnam, who was about to win an Oscar for "Chariots of Fire", advised Forsyth that there would be studio money for a Scottish script with parts for a couple of American actors. One was the role of the star-gazing petro-mogul Felix Happer. "I wrote it with Burt Lancaster in my head from the very beginning," Forsyth says. "I'd read in an interview that he'd like to do some real comedy." He also drew on a recent deal struck with an oil consortium in Orkney. "The chief executive of the council realised he had a strong position and got the community a cut of the revenue and incredible things like care of libraries and community centres."

Thus was conceived the alluring figure of Gordon Urquhart, the savvy hotelier and accountant ("we tend to double up on jobs around here," as he explains). He was played, or beautifully underplayed, by Lawson. "Around that time it was quite hard to find a contemporary Scottish character who wasn't in wellies and a kilt or a Gorbals heavy," says Lawson. "I had hardly ever used my own voice. It's the most enjoyable experience I've ever had." The same endorsement comes from Riegert, who had to fight off Michael Douglas and half of Hollywood to land the part of MacIntyre. "If you could storyboard the best possible experience for an actor, this would be it," he says. "It was effortless. I recognised the material right off the page. My only question was how well could the director direct this movie? And 'Gregory's Girl' pretty much convinced me there wouldn't be any problem."

It was in "Gregory's Girl", his no-budget comedy of teenage angst, that Forsyth, then mainly a documentary-maker, paraded a taste for offbeat whimsy. In "Local Hero" he quietly folded it into a capacious narrative about sea and sky and the tectonic plates of the cold war. By night the northern lights twinkle benignly in a sky that daily swarms with NATO test jets, while the ancient waters yield lobsters, embargoed South African oranges and a hearty trawlerman from Murmansk, who boats in to sing at the ceilidh and check on his investment portfolio.

This colourful character was no fanciful invention. "There were Russian trawlers that anchored off Ullapool," says Forsyth. "In the thick of the cold war it was quite interesting that half a dozen Russians would come ashore and go into a pub. A very basic motivation was to let people feel that Scotland had a cosmopolitan aspect." Hence the plot's other fish out of water, the west African vicar.

The film has had a healthy afterlife on VHS and DVD. Its environmental credentials have crystallised into what now looks like a timely sermon about our over-reliance on oil. Happer choppers in like a deus ex machina to close the deal, only to come up against old Ben, the wise man of the beach, who persuades him to switch from oil to astronomy. MacIntyre is expelled back to his snazzy Houston high-rise with only sea shells and snapshots as mementoes. Remarkably, Riegert played the exquisitely melancholy final scene before he'd clapped eyes on Pennan or Arisaig on the west coast, where the beach scenes were filmed.

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Posted by at March 2, 2013 10:09 PM

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