Title: The Last King of Scotland
Run Time: 121 Minutes
Studio/Publisher: Fox Searchlight
In the 1980s the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) featured a character by the name of Kamala the Ugandan Giant. Though the wrestler was in reality an American Black, he bore an uncanny resemblance to Idi Amin, the man who ruled Uganda as president from 1971 to 1979. Iâ€™m sure the likeness was no coincidence: the WWF probably thought that one of the worldâ€™s most notorious strongmen would serve as a good prototype for a wrestling â€œbad guy.â€ So it should come as no surprise that Idi Amin has emerged once again as the villain, this time in the film The Last King of Scotland.
The Last King of Scotland is based on the book of the same name by British author Giles Foden. Fodenâ€™s work is a historical novel; that is, it mixes fictional characters with real-life figures from history (some classic historical novels include Leo Tolstoyâ€™s War and Peace and Italian writer Alessandro Manzoniâ€™s The Betrothed). Though the actor who plays Idi Amin, Forest Whitaker, is American, both director Kevin Macdonald and supporting actor James McAvoy are from Scotland .
The film tells the story of Idi Aminâ€™s descent into totalitarianism, barbarism, and madness as seen through the eyes of Nick Garrigan, a young Scottish doctor who goes to Uganda on a humanitarian aid mission and ends up becoming the dictatorâ€™s personal physician (Garrigan, by the way, is Fodenâ€™s invention, though some have tried to link him with Robert Astles, an English soldier and associate of Idi Amin). At first Garrigan, like many Ugandans themselves, welcomes Amin and sees his rise to power as a means for Africans to assert their independence. He begins losing faith, however, after individuals accused of collaborating with Aminâ€™s predecessor Milton Obote are brutally assaulted by police, buildings go up in smoke, and some of Aminâ€™s associates suspected of treason disappear mysteriously. Aminâ€™s paranoia, by definition, renders him irrational.
Though Nick Garrigan is meant to be the eyes into the movie, one gets the feeling that he is merely an observer rather than a character in his own right. In other words, he is irrelevant to the course of the plot. Even as Aminâ€™s â€œadvisor,â€ Garrigan appears unable to influence the leader. The film loses several opportunities to develop Garrigan as a character. He falls in love with the wife of a physician at the mission at which he is first stationed, but the relationship is suddenly disrupted by Garriganâ€™s decision to serve Amin and is left hanging, so to speak. Similarly, some of the events that befall Garrigan, like his chance meeting with the president at a roadside, have a Deus ex machina quality to them that makes them, and Garrigan, less believable.
More interesting is The Last King of Scotlandâ€™s portrayal of history, even if we are informed at the beginning that the film is inspired rather than entirely based on real-life events. First is the depiction of Idi Amin. He sees himself as the saviour of Uganda and, by extension, of Africa as a whole. It is not that he does much concrete to help his people; as they struggle to meet their basic needs, he lives in luxury in a palace with fancy cars, servants, and a swimming pool. Of course megalomania and exaggerated self-aggrandizement are traits common to absolute rulers like Amin; Adolf Hitler, for example, stated that he would establish an empire that would last a thousand years.
The title The Last King of Scotland also gives way to a number of larger issues. Amin, in the film as in reality, admires all things Scottish. He names two of his sons Campbell and McKenzie, has his troops wear Scottish kilts, and trades his army shirt for Garriganâ€™s t-shirt with the words â€œ Scotland â€ on it. One senses that perhaps Amin feels a certain kinship with the Scots as fellow victims of British colonialism. On first meeting Garrigan, for instance, Amin eyes him suspiciously and asks him whether he is British. When Garrigan replies that he is Scottish, Amin suddenly smiles and says that if he were not Ugandan, he would be a Scot. He actually once refers to himself â€“ in the movie and in real life â€“ as the last king of Scotland .
Aminâ€™s relationship with his former overlords, the English, is not so clear-cut, however. While he speaks of Uganda breaking free from England â€™s rule, he still keeps company with a number of English diplomats and reporters. He predicts that Queen Elizabeth will become his lover (in real life, Amin proposed to her daughter Princess Anne; the offer does not appear to have been accepted).
Idi Amin reserves his real hatred for the Asians (â€œAsiansâ€ here in the British sense of East Indians, not people from Japan , China , etcetera). He gives them ninety days to leave Uganda , which they proceed to do, leaving most of their property behind. When Garrigan protests that the expulsion will lead to economic collapse, Amin retorts, â€œYou would defend your Asian tailor?â€ (a man who made a suit for Garrigan). Thus Aminâ€™s empathy for other ethnic groups subject to British colonialism ( Britain ruled India for nearly a century) does not extend to Asians. His expulsion of them from his territory, which is based on an event in actual history, also challenges the notion that people â€œof colourâ€ will automatically band together against the White â€œoppressorâ€ or, from the White Supremacist viewpoint, engage in some vast anti-White conspiracy.
The Last King of Scotland is an enjoyable film, and Forest Whitakerâ€™s acting is very good (he won an Oscar for his role as Amin). The movie offers perspectives on history, race and human nature that most Hollywood productions today do not.