In many films where an American travels abroad [at least before it became a necessary way to get financial backing for hundred million dollar blockbusters], both parties are corrupted or influenced in some way---the local community takes in the American personality while the visitor softens to the strange land’s particular charms. This is true in Local Hero, though the effect is much more pronounced on Mac. While most of the Scottish citizens are more than happy to take in the American millions and move on elsewhere, their behavior doesn’t seem to change under the influence of the corporate bribe. Mac, on the other hand, is constantly wowed by meteor showers and the Aurora Borealis and all the other natural wonders not native to Houston, Texas. And how could he not be? After all, when you Google Local Hero, most of the top hits are travel guides for the film’s locations.
MacIntyre may not be a caricature of an American, but he is wholly American. He is being sent on this job because of a perceived connection to the “home land,” but it is a myth---the joke is that his Hungarian immigrant parents changed their name to sound more American. Any European heritage he may have was striped away for a new ideal. Strangely, this makes him the perfect subject for the job even if it isn't for the reason his company utilizes.
He is also part of the commodity society of the mid-1980s. This is first and most prominently seen in his line of work, as the new age oil man. Instead in the fields, a part the process in its natural state, the corporation is introduced by a piece of marketing idealizing oil. In the brief time we see his home, Mac is shown to have a perfectly Americanized apartment, with too much stuff for the space and more you’d expect of a career-driven businessman. It almost seems like a relic of Rock Hudson and Doris Day films of the 1950s with its white throw pillows and decorative photographs of fish on the wall.
Once Mac arrives in Scotland, he personifies the strict businessman prepared to come against community push back. This is where Local Hero becomes a strange version of the American abroad story, as there isn’t much initial push back at all. Forsyth’s quiet filmmaking is mirrored in the quiet atmosphere and the straight-forward transaction plot has fewer stakes than you’d expect. But once Mac has fully fallen in love with the simpler Scottish life, the third act brings Ben Knox, the only villager who is unwilling to sell his land. Unlike most other American businessmen in film, however, Mac’s newfound conscience doesn’t allow him to sabotage the deal now that there is some resistance.
Ultimately, Mac’s boss Felix Happer [played by the great Burt Lancaster] comes in to seal the deal. Happer is a powerful man, with Lancaster’s persona lending an immediate presence to the character, but he is full of quirks. His obsession with astrology comes back to be the key in compromising with the unwilling party, but it also softens the character to keep him from being the likely villain. More important than this tidy conclusion, though, are the last frames of Mac looking over the cityscape he has come home to---there is certainly beauty to be found in the city skyline, but seeing it through the changed character’s eyes gives it a proper touch of melancholy.
At times Forsyth’s Local Hero meets the basic structure and outline for an American abroad film, but then the filmmaker never pushes too hard into the genre’s expectations. The film’s simple plot could be compelling enough, but it takes on a different rhythm, though one that still emphasises the cultural differences between its main character and his new community. Mac and Happer are typical of movie businessmen: American ideals of wealth, but damaged souls. As they are changed by the skies of Ferness, they leave behind a little of their modern world. Local Hero finds a nice balance between idealizing the idyllic landscapes in the slow paced Scottish community while not demonizing the American forces that imprint on it---that might be a surprising take in the typically less nuanced film, but like everything else Local Hero moves in its own way.