A man gets on his motorbike in Poland. He rides all the way across Europe and crosses the Channel and heads up to Scotland and into a little seaside village on the north-east coast called Pennan. He parks up his bike and walks over to the red phone box by the shore and bursts into tears. That is the power of a film called Local Hero.

It was Monika Focht, owner of the Pennan Inn, who saw the Polish man break down and cry. Later, the biker told her how delighted he was that his room at the inn had a view of the phone box – in fact, he ended up staying up most of the night to take it all in and it’s hardly surprising: Pennan is as beautiful at night as it is during the day and is one of the best places to take in the aurora borealis (which features in the film).

I ask Monica, who bought the Pennan Inn with her husband Roland in 2020 and came over from Germany to start a new life, why she thinks people like the Polish biker do this kind of thing - because they do (a lot). I also ask her, as someone who lives in the place that was the heart of Local Hero, why she thinks the movie is so powerful for many people – then and now.

“The film inspires so strongly and lastingly because it talks about hidden dreams,” she says. “Just break out. Go to the sea and maybe stay there. Many people dream of it. Others just love this quiet time when the film was shot. The greatest thing for that man from Poland was to have the room with a view of the phone booth. In Pennan, the world has somehow stopped.”

Monica tells me about something else that happens quite a lot: people call up the phone box from all over the world. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember the phone box. In a way, it’s the biggest icon of the film. The central character, the oil man Mac played by Peter Riegert, uses it to call his HQ in Houston, and at the end of the film, after he’s fallen in love with Scotland but is back in the US, he makes a call to the phone box across the Atlantic in the last, touching little scene. It is his lifeline back to a place he wants to be, and a place that has changed him.

Monica says fans of the film often want to recreate that scene for themselves and she’ll often hear the phone ringing when she and her husband are sitting on the bench nearby having a cup of tea. She always answers the phone although usually the person hangs up - perhaps they’ve had their moment and all they needed was to make the connection; sometimes it’ll be someone from the other side of the world: Australia, America. “It’s because the film still inspires people,” says Monika. “I know people who watch it once a week and sometimes more.”

And so – on the 40th anniversary of the making of the film and to mark the publication of a new book about it – let’s look back at the movie that inspires so many people and remind ourselves what it was about. Produced by David Puttnam (he of Chariots of Fire) and directed by Bill Forsyth (he of Gregory’s Girl), it is the story of a big American oil company, run by a tycoon played by Burt Lancaster, who sends one of their men, played by Riegert, to Scotland to buy up a village and turn it into an oil refinery. You can see where this might be going can’t you: big bad Americans against the good guys in Scotland.

Except that’s not the way it goes – quite the opposite. The villagers are totally up for selling out – so much so that when one of their number, an old beach hobo played by Fulton Mackay, gets in their way, the film takes a dark turn. As for the Americans, Riegert’s character slowly falls under the village’s spell. With his feet in the sand and his eyes on the sky, he effectively falls in love with Scotland forever.

Bill Forsyth famously said of the film’s story that there isn’t really a plot at all and that it’s the stuff that happens in between that makes it, including the memorable funny moments. The old fisherman asking if there are two Gs in “bugger off”. The dubious parentage of the village baby. All the near misses with John Gordon Sinclair as the motorcyclist in a rush. And lots of others. The film is funny, but perhaps its real power lies in the fact that it’s more than funny and at times is exactly the opposite.

Forsyth told The Herald that he was first inspired to write the movie while he was up in Orkney directing a TV play for BBC Scotland.

“I got some of the inspiration while in Orkney,” he said. “I saw the effect it has on outsiders who go there. It happed to Mary June, the wardrobe lady. She left the BBC to live there. I was able to steal a lot of things because it was happening in front of my eyes.”

But Forsyth also said that in making Local Hero he was thinking of how Scotland has often been portrayed in films like Brigadoon – indeed, there is an explicit reference to that film in Local Hero when Mac and Danny, played by Peter Capaldi in his first movie role, get stuck in mist.

“I was borrowing from the image that Scotland has had on the screen in the past through films like Brigadoon, The Maggie and Whisky Galore,” said Forsyth. “It is the basic image of a little community being affected by outsiders and the effect the community has on them.”

Jonathan Melville, the author of the new book on Local Hero, says the original premise of the film was rather different. As originally envisaged, the American oilmen were more traditional baddies and were thwarted by local hero Gordon, played by Denis Lawson. In many ways, it was more of a thriller than a comedy but as Forsyth worked with the idea, it began to change. So much so that it’s not really clear who the Local Hero of the title is anymore: in the finished film, Lawson’s character convinces all the villagers to sell up to the Americans for the sake of the big bucks.

Melville says it’s this ambiguity and streak of darkness that helps make Local Hero such an interesting film. “That gets missed a lot,” he says. “When I spoke to Bill Forsyth, he said ‘this is not a feel-good film’. And yes, it was a romanticised version of Scotland in a way but at the same time, it’s quite brutal.” Can Local Hero really be a romanticised, feel-good film when it features a gang of villagers heading to the beach to kill an old man who’s standing in the way of them making money?

Melville’s book also reveals the many ways in which the finished film could have been different. The main character of Mac for example is nicely under-played by Riegert but Forsyth considered other actors for the role, including Henry Winkler who played Fonzie in Happy Days. Michael Douglas also fought for the part and it would have been a very different film had he got it.

Melville also believes the other great character in the film is Scotland itself, although the book reveals the trickery that was done to achieve the look and feel. For weeks before production began, the makers of the film searched up and down Scotland for a village with a beach but couldn’t find the one they wanted. So in the end, they filmed the village in Pennan on the east coast and the beach at Camusdarach near Mallaig on the west coast even though you’d never know it from the finished film.

Jenny Seagrove, who played the mysterious character of Marina (is she or isn’t she a mermaid?) has extremely happy memories of filming at Camusdarach and Pennan in ‘82. She calls me from the middle of the woods in England – she spends some of her time now running Mane Chance, an animal sanctuary and charity in Surrey – and says that the effects Scotland had on are 40 years ago are still with her.

“I feel the power of Scotland still,” she says. “I love Scotland and Local Hero was one of the happiest films I’ve ever made. It always comes from the top – Bill Forsyth is the most marvellous, funny, gentle and understated human being. It was Peter Capaldi’s first picture and my first feature film because I’d done a couple of shorts. It was just happy.”

There are particular moments and characters from the film that stand out for Seagrove. The big Russian with a love of vodka and Scottish women, played by Christopher Rozycki. Mac eating in the hotel restaurant and getting squirted in the eye by lemon juice. The psychiatrist who Burt Lancaster’s oilman pays to be rude to him (it really was a thing in America in the 80s: abuse therapy). And the stew that Denis Lawson’s hotelier makes with a rabbit. It’s the only thing Seagrove would change about the film: she would let the bunny live.

Seagrove recognises something else important about Local Hero too, which is that, in the subtle way that Bill Forsyth does things in his films, it was one of the first movies to raise the subject of environmentalism and the damage industry can do to the planet.

“Lightness is always the very best way of doing those things,” she says. “You don’t make people think and change by lecturing them, you make them laugh and then you go ‘oh, I’ve got your attention’. And we need that especially nowadays when nature is under attack.”

I tell her the story of the man coming all the way to Pennan from Poland and bursting into tears when he saw the phone box and she isn’t surprised.

“The film touches people and the scenes in the phone box is iconic and it sort of focuses the whole film,” she says. “If you love the film, you’ll love the phone box so I understand someone seeing it and crying.

“The film still works. Because it’s about human nature, because it’s about beauty, because it’s about relationships, not only with each other but with a community and the natural world and our values. The world changes around us but human nature essentially doesn’t change.”

Melville agrees that the film is all the better for touching on these themes, including relationships and environmentalism, lightly rather than with a heavy-hand but he does wonder if things would be different if the film were made nowadays. Would the Americans be the baddies? Would there be scenes of the heavy machinery moving in on the beach? He also admits that if you were making it now, you would probably give the female characters more of a prominent role. And could you really make a film about a place like Pennan now without talking about house prices and second homes? The village is mostly holiday homes now and has only about 10 permanent residents left.

Then there’s the question of how the film ends: would you give it a happy ending if you were making it now? Would Mac suddenly change his mind, jump out of the helicopter, declare his love for Scotland and stay forever? In fact, if the studio bosses had had their way, that’s the way the film would have ended – they showed the original cut to test audiences who didn’t like the ending in which Mac returns to Houston, a little sad and a little melancholic, with his link to Scotland already starting to fade.

In the end, Forsyth and the studio reached a compromise: in the last few seconds of the film, Mac picks up the phone in the US and calls the phone box in the village. But what does it mean? Is Mac calling the villagers to tell them he’s changed his mind and is coming to live with them? Or does he just want to hear a friendly Scottish voice in the place he’s grown to love? It’s typical of Forsyth that he leaves it open to question: no one answers the phone, it rings and rings in to the silence.

I ask Melville, who’s been a fan of Local Hero pretty much his whole life, what he makes of the ending. “I think it’s interesting as Peter Riegert points out that no one is answering the phone at the end of the movie. Is it a happy ending? I think he’s probably just phoning up to have a chat with the guys in the pub.” Melville also points out that in Forsyth’s original script, he wrote about Mac putting pictures of Scotland up on his wall in the US but that in time the photos “will fade in the Houston sunlight”. In other words, if Local Hero is a film about the power of place, it’s also a film about how the power fades.

In a way, this kind of nuance, this subtle story-telling, is one of the main reasons Local Hero works so well: there is no clunking great message and the motives of the people in the movie are complicated. I ask Melville why he thinks the film is such a cult 40 years on and he says part of it is the warm familiarity.

“Although I’ve said it’s not a feel-good film, there’s something about the film that you can go back to and it feels like an old friend,” he says. “It’s like you’re visiting that village and you’re going back to it. It’s a bit like going home.”

For Seagrove, it’s the subtlety and mystery in Local Hero that helps explains its power – we’re never quite sure who anyone really is deep-down and isn’t that true of real life too? Seagrove says that, 40 years later, people still ask her whether her character was a mermaid or not. She never gives an answer.

At the Pennan Inn, Monika Focht also feels the pull and legacy of the film – every day. Local Hero lives on in her house, she says. There are film posters on the walls and guests arrive all the time from all over the world. Monika says that it wasn’t Local Hero specifically that made her and her husband buy the B&B some two years, but she’s glad they did. And she knows that one night soon, she’ll be sitting on the bench by the call box and the phone will ring. She’ll answer it and maybe the person on the end of the line will speak, maybe they won’t. They’re just fans of Local Hero, that’s all. They just want to make the connection.

Local Hero: Making a Scottish Classic by Jonathan Melville is published by Polaris at £16.99