A ‘Fairy Tale’ Trip to 1980s Houston
In between a trip to Scotland, Local Hero lets viewers glimpse a bygone Bayou City of 40 years ago.
Houston film critic Joe Leydon still remembers when he met the Scottish filmmaker who would make a charming little film in his neck of the woods.
Back when he was covering movies for the long-gone Houston Post, Leydon met writer-director Bill Forsyth back in 1981, when his film Gregory’s Girl played the city’s WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival. “As I recall, Forsyth was sort of the whimsical little character that you would expect,” Leydon told the Texas Observer. “He was really impressed by the size and the muscle of Houston.”
A couple years later, Forsyth would drop Local Hero, which hit U.S. theaters on February 17, 1983—40 years ago this month. It’s a movie that starts off in Houston: “Mac” MacIntyre (Peter Riegert), an executive at Knox Oil and Gas, gets chosen by his eccentric boss Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) to fly to Scotland and convince the people of fictional beachside village Ferness to vacate,for a hefty sum, of course, so his company can build a refinery. Once MacIntyre and his Scottish Knox representative (future Doctor Who Time Lord Peter Capaldi) get there, they both slowly but surely fall in love with the place. Originally showing up in a three-piece suit, it isn’t long before MacIntyre starts rocking sweaters, shooting the breeze with the locals, and collecting seashells.
While only 12-15 minutes of Hero is set in H-Town, Forsyth filmed most of those minutes on location. The movie begins with MacIntyre driving his Porsche 93O through Interstate 45 N, on his way to work. The downtown offices of Knox Oil and Gas were shot at the Texas Commerce Tower, now called the JPMorgan Chase Tower, and Pennzoil Place, where Forsyth used the office of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush for most of Happer’s scenes. (Zapata Petroleum, Bush’s oil company, was located in the building.) The next-to-last shot has MacIntyre back at his condominium, looking at Houston’s famed skyline from his balcony.
According to Jonathan Melville’s book Local Hero: Making a Scottish Classic, while writing the script, the only thing Forsyth knew about Houston “was how to pronounce it.” The director said, “Because of the oil boom and oil companies were coming to Scotland and were in the headlines, I vaguely knew that was one of the bases of the American oil industry. I didn’t research it. I’m not very good at research.” Forsyth declined to be interviewed for this piece, with his rep telling me “he feels that a 40 year old film is old enough to be out on its own.”
In a 2018 Houston Chronicle piece on Hero, location manager Dennis Bishop remembers how it was up to him and local crewmates to hip Forsyth and his visiting team on what Texas truly is. “When [producer] David Puttnam sent me the script, they were emulating the television series Dallas. Everybody wore cowboy hats,” Bishop said. “I wanted to show them a more realistic version of the characters.”
Forsyth has said there’s not much of a plot to Hero. “It’s not a high-concept movie, there’s actually no story there really,” he told Melville. “It’s what happens in between the story that’s important.” Indeed, Hero is what Quentin Tarantino would call a “hangout movie,” where getting to know the characters is more vital than the story. You get to know the innkeeper/accountant (Denis Lawson, aka Wedge Antilles from the original Star Wars trilogy) who, when he’s not getting it on with his amorous wife (Jennifer Black), works on the deal with McIntyre. You get to know the marine biologist (Jenny Seagrove) who often shows up onshore and intoxicates MacIntyre’s rep to the point where dude kisses her webbed toes. And you get to know the townsfolk, many of them are more than willing to accept a paycheck and move someplace else.
Yes, these are characters you wouldn’t mind hanging with for a couple hours—even the oil execs. At a time when millions of Americans tuned in to watch Larry Hagman’s ruthless oil baron J.R. Ewing scheme backstab and connive every week on Dallas, Forsyth gave us oil man and astrology nerd Happer (a role once offered to Willie Nelson), who’s more concerned with what’s happening in the stars. “I think one of the things about the film that made it appealing to people in Houston—and I guess elsewhere—is it’s probably the only movie of that era, maybe the only movie ever, that took such a sympathetic view of a Texas oil company executive,” Leydon said. “I mean, Burt Lancaster’s character is very much a powerful wheeler-dealer. But he also has this whimsical, romantic side, a sensitivity that you don’t usually associate with people in those positions of power.”
Although Hero only made $5.9 million around these parts, this “magical, modern-day fairy tale” (Leydon’s words from his original review) has a lot of fans. It has a 100 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert gave it four stars, while James Wolcott called it “an unanticipated treat—a beautiful trinket in a plain brown wrapper” in Texas Monthly. According to Leydon, it even made people visit Scotland. “I remember one couple actually sent me, at the Post, a couple of seashells they picked up from the village where they actually shot the movie,” he recalled. In 2019, Forsyth collaborated with Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler, who composed the score, on a stage musical adaptation that, after being sidelined by the pandemic, had an English theater run late last year.
While I’m more of a fan of Comfort and Joy, the 1984 Christmas comedy (still unavailable on streaming and VOD, BTW!) that Forsyth made after Hero, it’s hard not to get won over by its charms. As Lancaster told us, “… Local Hero is like those lovely Ealing [Studios] movies. No violence, just eccentrics.” It’s just one of many endearing films Forsyth made in the ’80s about dreamers, quietly longing for love, good times, and a peaceful, harmonious existence with their friends and neighbors—just like the people watching them. As Leydon said of the characters (and the audience), “They can yearn for something simpler. They can yearn for something outside of themselves. And it’s a sweet thought.”
Local Hero is available to rent or buy.