European Cinema and Identity – Assessment 2
- Question 6: Analyse the importance of highland landscape as a metaphor for Scotland in Forsyth’s Local Hero.
‘It’s special here’, says Marina (Jenny Seagrove), the mermaid-like marine biologist of Local Hero about the landscape of her home country Scotland. However, this statement is at the same time valid for Scotland as a whole, a country with a colourful history and a unique status, often ‘described as a stateless nation, an imagined community’ (McCrone 2001: 6; Anderson 2006: 6). After almost 300 years of dependence, sealed with the Act of Union in 1707, Scotland is now taking more and more steps towards independence from England – with the establishment of the ‘first separate Scottish Parliament’ as probably the ‘most fundamental’ step (Petrie 2000 (b): 153). Since, as Everett states, ‘identity is a dominant concern [of every nation]’ (2005 (a): 6) it is not surprising that a nation which has been dominated for such a long time is especially interested in finding and presenting its unique features.
In Petrie’s opinion, cultural products such as films are ‘means by which the myths and realities, experiences and dreams of [a nation] and its inhabitants [are] reflected and asserted’ (2004: 1-2). Thus, Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (1983) can be seen as an important contribution to Scotland’s search and assertion of identity. This essay will primarily deal with Forsyth’s representation of highland landscape that, in Morgan James’ opinion, ‘is closely associated to [Scotland’s identity]’ (2003: 121) and ‘represents a powerful discourse of national identity’ (2006: 187). The focus of this study will lie on Forsyth’s reconstruction of this ‘ethnoscape’ (ibid: 187) and on the question of to what extent the highland landscape in Local Hero can be seen as a metaphor for Scotland. As the following analysis will show, Forsyth on the one hand employs traditional ‘iconography [such as] misty landscape’ (McCrone 2001: 127). However, he deconstructs and modifies these stereotypes and thus presents Scotland as a nation being shaped and enriched by its mythical past, but not stuck in it. In contrast, Scotland keeps up with the times and is ready to face future and its challenges.
When Scottish landscape appears for the first time in Local Hero it resembles the ‘Scotland of our imagination’ (McCrone 2001: 6), the stereotype of the sublime and mystical highland scenery. The wide shots of the highland idyll contrast strongly with the film’s introductory setting, the loud and fast ‘urban environment of the postmodern American city of Houston’ (Morgan James 2006: 190). However, Mac MacIntyre (Peter Reigert), the ambitious representative of the capitalist company ‘Knox Oil and Gas’, who was sent to Scotland to buy the whole village of Ferness, has problems with this seemingly innocent landscape. As if the Highlands wanted to prevent the intrusion of capitalism and modernity it becomes misty all of a sudden and Mac and his colleague have to break their journey – a scene that hints at Powell’s and Pressburger’s film I Know Where I’m Going (1945). Since Scotland itself is often seen as a self-engrossed country struggling against impositions from outside, the ‘dramatic intrusion of the modern world into small, rural Highland and Island communities’ (Petrie 2000 (a): 3) is a common motif in Scottish films and novels. However, Forsyth modifies this motif: whereas the misty landscape tries to fend the intruders off, the village inhabitants are glad about the arrival of Mac, a representative of modernity and of money. This mirrors the fact that Scotland no longer shrinks into its shell but tries to find its place in a globalised world.
After having been confronted with Mac’s rushing postmodern lifestyle in Houston, the audience expects him to be overwhelmed by the beautiful highland landscape. However, as the mist clears, Mac does not even look properly at his surrounding and only states: ‘Whole lot of scenery, though.’ This sloppy statement demonstrates his alienation from nature that becomes obvious in another scene, as well: As Mac and his colleague walk along the beach while waiting for news of the chief negotiator Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson), they do not even realise the beautiful afterglow, but only talk about pollutants, data and money. Again, the wide shots of the landscape deeply contrast with the men’s narrow-mindedness. In these scenes, as well as in the laboratory in Aberdeen, where the scientist play around with a model of Ferness (‘Hold Ferness a minute, would you?’, ‘Take it. Keep it.’) the landscape seems to be passive and weak, only a plaything for others – just as Scotland in its days of dependence and outside domination. And still, although having a separate parliament and becoming more self-confident, the nation ‘remains very much tied economically and politically to a Union dominated by England’ (Petrie 2005: 98).