Book review: Local Hero: Making a Scottish Classic, by Jonathan Melville

There are lots of anecdotes, but Jonathan Melville’s book about Local Hero doesn’t place it in the culture at large, writes Alistair Harkness

Late on in Jonathan Melville’s Local Hero: Making a Scottish Classic, the film’s associate producer Iain Smith recounts a story that a studio executive once told him about making great cinema. “When you make a movie it’s a movie. If they’re still talking about it in ten years’ time, it’s a film. If they’re still talking about it in 50 years’ time, it’s cinema.” The point, he goes on to explain, is that the audience decides if it’s cinema and this, he concludes, “is what’s happened to Local Hero.”

Though Smith is jumping the gun by a good decade here, Local Hero’s impending 40th anniversary next year is as good an occasion as any for a detailed book about the making of Bill Forsyth’s sly, subversive, frequently misunderstood comedy about an American oil executive’s attempts to buy up a stretch of Scottish coastline and the wily locals out to fleece him for all they can get.

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Starring Burt Lancaster, Peter Riegart and Denis Lawson, and marking the debut of Peter Capaldi, it’s a film with a rich history, but a history that audiences in Scotland and beyond could perhaps benefit from being reminded of from time to time. Melville himself (who’s previously written books on the making of Highlander and the niche-appeal Tremors franchise) frames his book as something of a mea culpa: when he was a student in the mid-1990s he once wrote a magazine article for his course about the sudden prominence of Scotland on film in the era of Braveheart and Trainspotting without mentioning the groundwork Forsyth had laid a decade-and-a-half earlier. A major omission in retrospect.

Burt Lancaster, David Puttnam and Fulton McKay on set during the making of Local Hero, 1983 PIC: ©Warner Brothers / courtesy Everett Collection / Alamy Stock Photo
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Forsyth, after all, practically invented the indigenous film industry in Scotland, giving numerous actors, technicians and future producers early breaks and scaling up his own filmmaking in the process. In fewer than five years he went from scraping together £5000 to shoot 1979’s That Sinking Feeling to scoring a box office hit with Gregory’s Girl to making Local Hero — a film with a £3 million budget, a newly-minted Oscar-winning producer (David Puttnam) and a proper old-school movie star in Burt Lancaster. Given how slowly things move in the film industry — especially in Scotland — that remains an extraordinary achievement and Melville provides a useful overview of those scrappy early days.

But when he starts getting into the actual making of Local Hero itself he has a tendency to get a little lost in the weeds, often struggling to distinguish between what’s actually interesting about the film and its place in the culture at large, and anecdotes that merely illustrate the sometimes mundane realities of film production (there’s a lot about set construction). The bulk of the text is comprised of a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown of the film, which is a common way to structure these sorts of books. When done well — as in Glenn Kenny’s Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas or Glenn Frankel’s Shooting Midnight Cowboy — it can bring the film in question vividly to life, immersing the reader and altering they way they view it from that point on. Melville manages this a few times; he’s good on the film’s ambiguous, melancholic ending and gets interesting insights from Riegert.

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But too much of the book is straight plot summary with minimal analysis and he doesn’t really do the hard work of shaping the original research he has done into into a compelling narrative that might elucidate the film's themes or make a compelling case for why audiences have continued to talk about Local Hero over the years. He’s even vague on his own reasons for loving the film. “There’s no single thing that makes it work for me,” he writes, “just a combination of intelligent writing, the perfect cast, incredible locations and something else I can’t quite put my finger on.” Shouldn’t writing a 250-page book have been an opportunity to do just that?

Local Hero: Making a Scottish Classic, by Jonathan Melville, Polaris Publishing, 352pp, £16.99