"Mac" MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) is a typical 1980s hot-shot executive working for Knox Oil and Gas in Houston, Texas. The eccentric chief of the company, Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster), chooses to send him (largely because his surname sounds Scottish) to Scotland to acquire the village of Ferness to make way for a refinery. Mac (who is actually of Hungarian extraction) is a little apprehensive about his assignment, complaining to a co-worker that he would much rather take care of business over the phone and via telex machines. Happer, an avid astronomy buff, tells Mac to watch the sky, especially around the constellation Virgo, and to notify him immediately if he sees anything unusual.
Upon arriving in Scotland, Mac teams up with local Knox representative Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi). During a visit to a Knox research facility in Aberdeen, Dr Geddes (Rikki Fulton) and his assistant Watt (Alex Norton) inform them about the scope of the company's plans, which entail replacing Ferness with the refinery. They also meet (and admire) marine researcher Marina (Jenny Seagrove).
Mac ultimately spends several weeks in Ferness, gradually adapting to the slower-paced life and getting to know the eccentric residents, most notably the hotel owner and accountant, Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson) and his wife, Stella (Jennifer Black). As time passes, Mac becomes more and more conflicted as he presses to close the deal that will spell the end of the quaint little village he has come to love. Ironically, the villagers are tired of the hard life they lead and are more than eager to sell, though they feign indifference to induce a larger offer. Mac receives encouragement from an unlikely source: Victor (Christopher Rozycki), a capitalistic Soviet fishing boat captain who periodically visits his friends in Ferness (and checks on his investment portfolio, managed by Gordon).
Meanwhile, Danny befriends Marina, who is under the impression the company is planning to build a research centre at Ferness. During a date, he discovers that Marina, who seems more at home in the water than on land, has webbed toes. While watching some grey seals, Danny mentions that sailors used to believe they were mermaids, and Marina tells him the sailors were wrong.
As the deal nears completion, Gordon discovers that Ben Knox (Fulton Mackay), an old beachcomber who lives in a snug driftwood shack on the shore, owns the beach through a grant from the Lord of the Isles to his ancestor. MacIntyre tries everything to entice Ben to sell, even offering enough money to buy any other beach in the world, but the owner is content with what he has. Ben picks up some sand and offers to sell for the same number of "pound notes" as he has grains of sand in his hand. A suspicious MacIntyre declines, only to be told there could not have been more than ten thousand grains.
Happer finally arrives on site, just in time to forestall a potentially nasty confrontation between some of the villagers and Ben; Happer mistakes the mob for a welcoming committee. When Mac informs him of the snag in the proceedings, he decides to negotiate personally with Ben and in the process, discovers a kindred spirit. Happer opts to locate the refinery offshore and set up an astronomical observatory instead. He instructs MacIntyre to go home to implement the changes. Danny brings up Marina's dream of an oceanographic research facility and suggests combining the two into the "Happer Institute", an idea that Happer likes. Later, Danny finds Marina swimming offshore and tells her the good news. A sombre MacIntyre returns to Houston. The final shot is of the local phone box ringing and Mark Knopfler's "Going Home" swelling as the phone rings and the credits roll.Peter Riegert as Mac
Burt Lancaster as Felix Happer
Fulton Mackay as Ben Knox
Denis Lawson as Gordon Urquhart
Norman Chancer as Moritz
Peter Capaldi as Danny Oldsen
Rikki Fulton as Geddes
Alex Norton as Watt
Jenny Seagrove as Marina
Jennifer Black as Stella
Christopher Rozycki as Victor
Christopher Asante as Reverend Macpherson
John Gordon Sinclair as Ricky
Caroline Guthrie as Pauline
David Puttnam originally approached his regular backers Warner Bros. and Goldcrest Films to fund Local Hero, but initially turned him down. When Puttnam won a BAFTA (which, ironically was presented by Burt Lancaster) for Chariots of Fire in 1982 this immediately convinced Goldcrest executives to fund the movie.
The casting of Burt Lancaster was problematic as he demanded a $2m salary for appearing, which was almost a third of the film's entire budget. However upon learning of his potential involvement in the project, Warner Bros offered Puttnam a US distribution deal, and provided the additional funding to secure Lancaster's services. After negotations, Puttnam ended up having an additional $200,000 in the film's budget as a result - Puttnam in a later interview remarked that "big stars are not a liability, they are an asset!".
Warner Bros. wanted Henry Winkler to play the part of Mac but Bill Forsyth rejected the idea.
Local Hero was filmed in several locations around Scotland. Most of the Ferness village scenes were filmed in Pennan on the Aberdeenshire coast, and most of the beach scenes at Morar and Arisaig on the west coast. Aberdeenshire, Scotland, UK
Arisaig, Highland, Scotland, UK
The Ship Inn Banff, Scotland, UK, (Interior bar scenes)
Ben Nevis Distillery, Fort William, Highland, Scotland, UK
Camusdarach Sands, Camusdarach, Morar, Mallaig, Highland, Scotland, UK (Ferness, beach scenes)
Fort William, Highland, Scotland, UK
Highlands, Scotland, UK
Hilton, Highland, Scotland, UK (Ferness, village hall ceilidh)
Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, 2101 NASA Road, Houston, Texas, US (Knox Oil testing lab)
Loch Eil, Highland, Scotland, UK
Lochaber, Highland, Scotland, UK
Lochailort, Highland, Scotland, UK (Church)
Loch Tarff, Fort Augustus, Highland, Scotland
Mallaig, Highland, Scotland, UK
Moidart, Highland, Scotland, UK
One Shell Plaza, 910 Louisiana St., Houston, Texas, US (Knox Oil headquarters)
Our Lady of the Braes Roman Catholic Church, Polnish, Highland, Scotland, UK (Ferness, village church)
Pennan, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, UK (Ferness, includes red phone box)
Pole of Itlaw, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, UK (Ferness, village shop)
Polnish, Highland, Scotland, UK
The film's soundtrack was written and produced by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. This has led to the popularity of the film with fans of the band. Knopfler has since performed an arrangement of "Going Home (Theme of the Local Hero)" as an encore at many of his concerts. This tune borrows some melodic riffs from traditional songs. In his review of the album in Allmusic, William Ruhlmann wrote:
Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler's intricate, introspective fingerpicked guitar stylings make a perfect musical complement to the wistful tone of Bill Forsyth's comedy film, Local Hero. ... The low-key music picks up traces of Scottish music, but most of it just sounds like Dire Straits doing instrumentals, especially the recurring theme, one of Knopfler's more memorable melodies.
Gerry Rafferty provided the vocals for "The Way It Always Starts" on the soundtrack. The album was certified a BPI silver record.
In his Chicago Sun-Times review, Roger Ebert gave the film his highest four stars, calling it "a small film to treasure." He gave particular praise to writer-director Bill Forsyth for his abilities as a storyteller.
What makes this material really work is the low-key approach of the writer-director, Bill Forsyth, who also made the charming Gregory's Girl and has the patience to let his characters gradually reveal themselves to the camera. He never hurries, and as a result, Local Hero never drags: Nothing is more absorbing than human personalities, developed with love and humor. Some of the payoffs in this film are sly and subtle, and others generate big laughs. Forsyth's big scenes are his little ones, including a heartfelt, whiskey-soaked talk between the American and the innkeeper, and a scene where the visitors walk on the beach and talk about the meaning of life. By the time Burt Lancaster reappears at the end of the film, to personally handle the negotiations with old Ben, Local Hero could hardly have anything but a happy ending.
James Berardinelli gave the film three and a half stars out of four, calling it "a fragment of cinematic whimsy—a genial dramatic comedy that defies both our expectations and those of the characters." Berardinelli also focused on Forsyth's abilities as a storyteller, noting that the director "finds the perfect tone for this not-quite-a-fairy-tale set in a quaint seaside Scottish village named Ferness. By injecting a little (but not too much) magical realism into the mix, Forsyth leavens his pro-environmental message to the point that those not looking for it might not be conscious of its presence." Berardinelli concluded that Local Hero represents "the best kind of light fare: a motion picture that offers a helping of substance to go along with an otherwise frothy and undemanding main course."
The New York Times critic Janet Maslin wrote, "Genuine fairy tales are rare; so is film-making that is thoroughly original in an unobtrusive way. Bill Forsyth's quirky disarming Local Hero is both." Maslin concluded:
Local Hero is a funny movie, but it's more apt to induce chuckles than knee-slapping. Like Gregory's Girl, it demonstrates Mr. Forsyth's uncanny ability for making an audience sense that something magical is going on, even if that something isn't easily explained.
In Variety magazine, film critic Todd McCarthy wrote, "After making the grade internationally with the sleeper hit, Gregory's Girl, Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth has broken the sophomore sesh jinx the only way he could, by making an even better film ... Given a larger canvas, director Forsyth has in no way attempted to overreach himself or the material, keeping things modest and intimate throughout, but displaying a very acute sense of comic insight."
Almar Haflidason called Local Hero "a wry film that slowly slips under the skin to surprising effect" in BBC Home. Haflidason concludes, "Once over, the mood of the film hits home and a longing develops to visit once again the characters of this warm and deceptively slight comedy."
For Movie Gazette, Gary Panton described the film as a "magical, intelligent comedy." Panton praised the cinematography as "little short of amazing" and that Local Hero was "Bill Forsyth's finest work of all, this is a perfect film."
On the aggregate web site Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a rare 100% positive rating from top critic reviews (based on 31 reviews), and an 88% positive rating from audience reviews (based on 6,916 reviews).
Local Hero earned $5,895,761 in total gross sales in the United States.
The asteroid 7345 Happer is named after Lancaster's character in the film and his quest to have a comet named after him.