I’ve said it before when I saw The Train (1964) after seeing The Monuments Men (2014), the same applies to Local Hero (1983) after seeing Promised Land (2012). Each pairing of films sharing the same basic themes. It just so happens that Burt Lancaster is in the better and Matt Damon is in the not so-good films. Just an observation as both are capable actors. I think it comes down to the writing on both scores. So with observations out of the way, why was the superior earlier film of Local Hero far better than Promised Land?
Both have an environmental message to get across, one oil, the other gas through fracking. Big corporations send out men to hopefully negotiate the sale of all the necessary land to make the plans come to fruition. Local Hero is far softer on the message front when Mac (Peter Riegert) is sent to a Scottish coastal town to buy up town and surrounding land. Whilst in Promised Land it’s Steve Butler (Matt Damon) who has to persuade a more savvy farming town to sell up and move on. You have to also consider that there is very little mention of environmental issues in the earlier film. There is discussion of how the land could potentially be used, to research marine life with Marina (Jenny Seagrove) who also acts as an intelligent love interest for Mac’s colleague love-struck Oldsen (Peter Capaldi). It’s not really shared with the small fishing village who think their ship has finally come in. Made during the time of another recession, the smell of money is not something to be sniffed at.
If anything Local Hero is played more for laughs and gentle ones at that, it’s a small community who are practically cut-off from the world. Whilst in farming America there is a far stronger tone of environmentalism going on. Families have previously been affected by Fracking so will take a harder stance against an outsider coming in and wanting to buy up the land and possible pollute it, killing livestock. Fracking is still a very young technique which doesn’t have the security of Oil drilling pumped on or off-shore, its assumed to be safe (for the most part). Also looking at the two strangers who enter into their respective towns. One comes to want to stay, even with all the negotiating that goes on with Urquhart (Denis Lawson) who wants the money, knowing what it means for everyone. Unlike Butler who puts on a front, wanting to get in and out as quick as possible. He does develop and conscience unlike his colleague (Frances McDormand) who see this as just another job doing what she believes to be done in order to secure the land. A harder person unlike Butler.
It’s a harder sell overall for the community and for the audience, I came away not really caring for anyone. Whereas in Local Hero you get to know the people who populate this town, it’s very provincial, an old world community which we have less and less off. You want to spend more time with these characters. Even when we meet the stumbling block at the end, the beach which is owned by Ben (Fulton Mackay) who holds the message, he doesn’t preach, open to discussion, his age makes it harder to negotiate with. He even offers to take a pound for every grain of sand in his hand. He’s not bothered by the money, he know the land in away that the others don’t care about, they’re blinded by money. Not they that they’re blinded by Felix Happer’s (Burt Lancaster) money, they aren’t even made out to be the bad guys, wanting a better life for themselves. Moving back to retired teacher Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook) who uses his knowledge as a weapon against Butler and the town gets behind Frank.
We have progressed since the early 80’s in terms of how we discuss environmental issues, we have become more sophisticated as an audience. Our knowledge of the subject has increased, of course there will always be the odd horror story which we do have to accept. But at the heart of these two films you must have heart to engage with the audience, something we have, even at the top of Local Hero in Lancaster who by the stage in his career is in a minimal role really. However his enigmatic presence is felt throughout the film. He’s a man who has his faults, his interest in the stars, in short he’s human. Whilst in Promised Land it’s just about getting the job done or get fired. There’s no room for any manuever there, it’s so corporate that we are left cold. The oil man in Lancaster talks very little about his business, even willing to get his hands dirty. However its all down to Mac who as much as he wants to do his job, he’s won over from the big city for the country life that he had seen as so alien, he’s awoken to know what he wants in life, has he reached the same point as his boss, without the freedom to go out and grab it just yet, trapped by his job and obligations. It’s a film of understanding one another, to be open to change in your life, even when it may come in the form of a corporation.