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.
This is the kind of film you want when you think of The Monuments Men (2014) which also wants to save priceless art falling into Nazi hands. Something which The Train (1964) does better in spades. Focused on the journey of one train load of paintings by artists we know today as the masters of modern art we know today. Their skill and talent was known even before the out-break of war. A time in Germany which saw book burnings, modern art of both German and international artists branded as degenerate. Raided from collectors both, especially Jews who had worse to suffer under the regime. Being archived and exhibited as degenerate art of lower races, something to be-despised by German people.
Once France was under occupation, sways of more art was taken away, the countries pride and glory, something that has been left in their care. If these are lost they cannot be recovered, or remade. Not like the cuisine or output of the culture. To loose these would be a crime that a nation would be ashamed of for a generation.
Enter a member of the Resistance who cares little about a collection of art which is being transported over to Germany. He has no real appreciation for the works, however the idea that a part of France can so easily be lost is something he cannot let happen. Train station master Labiche (Burt Lancaster) who is persuaded by gallery archivist whose passion for the works that are bout transported out he is soon persuaded with his small resistance group.
It’s essentially a game of cat and mouse between the resistance and Colonel Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) an officer who by definition should detest theses works that drive him mad with passion. The journey into Germany blinds him to the point of distraction as time after time sabotage and good old fashioned foolery proceed in the film. When you think about it, France had been under occupation for almost 5 years by the time these events take place, when their culture is at stake they rise to the challenge once.
Centred around a single train engine for most of the film, the camera takes in the beautiful piece of engineering history from every angle possible as this game of wits plays out. Its tense yet fun to see the Nazi fooled time and again. With more love for the trains as they are used like weapons at times to de-rail (literally) the plans of one journey that should never make its destination.
What makes this film is that the real passion for the work lies with the enemy, who by default would want it destroyed, unless it was heading for the proposed museum in Germany. Whilst a Frenchman whose culture is a stake has no real interest in the works, he knows nothing of they’re worth financially or critically. He is instead driven by a passion for his country, its one step too far. Instead of banging on about a culture being lost as I have seen in The Monuments Men these people are actually putting their lives on the line, not talking about it. Yes they did meet a few, but they didn’t go half as far, maybe they should have joined the resistance. Thats not to do deserve to the real monuments men who saved a lot of work falling into enemy hands and disappearing off the face of the Earth. We are still discovering works by the old masters which were taken from Jewish collections. Why didn’t George Clooney and his boys take a leaf out of Lancaster’s book?