In the realm of Scottish cinema, there are few images more iconic than the red telephone box that stands tall by the beach in the village of Ferness in Local Hero. The film is one of the true foundations of 20th century pop culture in Scotland, a hugely influential comedy that redefined an entire nation to the rest of the world. Its legacy has long been secured thanks to a Criterion Collection release, a stage musical adaptation and even a minor planet named after one of its characters. One could argue that it’s the most important Scottish film ever made, and certainly one of the most beloved. The path it paved for our nation’s cultural output is all too easy to downplay.
It took until 1979 for Scotland to get its first feature length film (for comparison’s sake, that’s 71 years after The Story of the Kelly Gang, widely credited as the first multi-reel, feature-length film). Filmmaker Bill Forsyth, who made documentary shorts before his debut, made That Sinking Feeling on a paltry budget of around £5,000. The cast was entirely non-professional young actors from Glasgow’s youth theater group, and the story centered on a ragtag group of unemployed guys who commit an unusual heist of stainless steel sinks. It felt like a breath of fresh air, and not just because it was the first one in Scotland. It’s a very funny film with a dark streak that’s also exceedingly Scottish, to the point where you wonder how the hell anyone outside of this country gets it. Perhaps they didn’t. But the doors were now open, and Bill Forsyth was leading the way for Scottish cinema.
Next came Gregory’s Girl, a charming lo-fi romantic comedy about a teenage boy who falls hard for the girl who’s been allowed to join their school football team. But it was 1983’s Local Hero that put Forsyth’s name on the map outside of Scotland. Produced by David Puttnam, the legendary figure behind Chariots of Fire, the film follows a hotshot American oil executive who is sent to the Ferness in the Scottish Highlands to acquire the entire village and turn the land into a refinery. As he tries to convince the eccentric residents to sell their homes, he finds a strange kind of solace in Ferness, where life is quieter and cozier than back home in Texas.
Americans loved Local Hero. Roger Ebert, in his four-star review, called it “a small film to treasure.” The National Board of Review named it one of the top ten films of 1983, alongside The Right Stuff and The Big Chill. While it didn’t land any Oscar nominations, it did receive seven BAFTA nods and a Best Director win for Forsyth. It’s not hard to see why. Local Hero is a very easy film to love. Forsyth has a keen understanding of Scottishness, both as it’s presented to the rest of the world and in how locals confront those expectations. The humor is spot-on, dry with a hint of absurdity and plenty of self-deprecation. It’s a joy to see so many familiar faces, including a very fresh-faced Peter Capaldi and legendary Scottish comedy mainstay Rikki Fulton. This isn’t a fairytale, but it carries a certain kind of whimsy that makes it feel so, albeit with way more whisky and mockery of Americans.
Scottish pop culture is often stuck between two poles of stereotype: tartan frenzy or kitchen sink miserabilism. Outside portrayals of the nation and its people tend to swing wildly between Brigadoon or Trainspotting, settling for familiarity over the prickliness of truth. Forsyth himself often faced criticism that his work, particularly Local Hero, adhered to a few of these trite tropes. Some viewers wondered if the townspeople fit into the cliches of winsome, slightly naïve locals out of time and disconnected from modernity, although this overlooks the wit and canniness of the locals when dealing with the Americans’ business machinations. The joke is that they want to sell because the ever-so-Scottish lives they lead are hard work and exhausting, and only enticing to a man who already has money. The Glasgow Women and Film Collective questioned the male-oriented nature of the film and how little the female characters are given to do beyond entice the visiting Yank.
Still, these critiques are minor, and the way Forsyth plays with those nationalist expectations are what makes Local Hero so good. It threads that fine needle of being extremely for the people it depicts as well as those outsiders who crave a specific image of shortbread tin-friendly coziness. Sure, it fits into some of those neat boxes of Scottishness that tourists love: The fun eccentric locals, the magic of the Highlands, the quiet hints towards a blend of mysticism and history that inspired the likes of Outlander. Yet those qualities never overwhelm the true heart of the narrative, one of a culture clash that—to this Scot—feels sharply familiar. This unhurried life in Ferness, one of immense appeal yet decidedly real, reminds me so much of my own hometown, of the people who populate it. That sense of cloistered warmth, the humor of the familiar faces you see every day who enthrall and infuriate you in equal measure. All the scenes in the village pub are the epitome of a slice-of-life delight. Forsyth could be more caustic, far meaner about his take on Scottishness (see his follow-up to this, the dark crime-comedy Comfort and Joy), but Local Hero is a love letter that’s been heartily welcomed by the country for a reason.
Local Hero continues to cast a vast shadow over the small but impactful Scottish film industry. Its influence can be seen in the likes of Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share, a comedy about a whisky heist that brings a dash of Forsyth-esque optimism to a tale of economic and societal woe, and Shona Auerbach’s sinfully underrated drama Dear Frankie, about a woman who keeps her young son’s dreams of his absent father alive through false letters and a stranger playing dress-up. Ben Sharrock’s drama Limbo felt like the darker nephew to Forsyth’s film: Its portrayal of refugees stuck on a half-deserted Scottish island awaiting their fates acts as the flinty reminder that the country’s welcoming image is seldom so in practice. The beautiful coastal views of Forsyth become desolate in Limbo, the remorseless flipside of the pretty postcard sent back home.
Opportunities to buck the “Brigadoon vs. Trainspotting” cliches are sparse for Scottish creatives, even as the country becomes a frequent location for the likes of Star Wars and Marvel. The primary image of Scotland in mainstream culture in 2023 remains that of Outlander, a time-travel romantic drama that imagines itself as the historically accurate take on a classic romance novel (just with way more rape). Progress remains incremental for Scottish cinema for a number of reasons, and Scottishness as a commodity continues to sell in its most basic forms. Yet Bill Forsyth paved a way for something far sharper, more honest and more joke-heavy than a tourism ad campaign could hope to capture. It’s Scotland as Scotland, for us, by us, and maybe for you if you’re interested.
Kayleigh Donaldson is a critic and pop culture writer for Pajiba.com. Her work can also be found on IGN, Slashfilm, Uproxx, Little White Lies, Vulture, Roger Ebert, and other publications. She lives in Dundee.