The Last King of Scotland

DirectorKevin MacDonald
StarringForest Whitaker
James McAvoy
Kerry Washington
Gillian Anderson
Running Time123 mins

This is a fictional story set against the all too real backdrop of Idi Amin's regime in Uganda in the 1970s. It is based on Giles Foden's book of the same name. It introduces a fictional Scottish doctor, Dr Nick Garrigan, who is keen to escape the staid security of Scotland for adventure in an exotic clime. Full of youthful vigour he sets off for Uganda with a vague idea of helping Africans but also making sure that he has a good time whilst he does so.

His first posting is to a worthy missionary style hospital in a remote part of Uganda. Whilst there, fate will bring him to the attention of Idi Amin when the dictator is involved in a minor car crash. Dr Garrigan nearly oversteps the mark in his dealings with the temperamental dictator but is redeemed by his Scottish ancestry. Idi Amin had served with Scottish officers in the British Army and had become impressed with their martial spirit and their distinctly un-Englishness. Dr Garrigan makes an impression on the dictator who later summons him from the mission hospital to the bright lights of the capital Kampala. It is here that Dr Garrigan is seduced by the power and personality of Idi Amin and enters a holy Faustian pact with the dictator.

In return for a fabulously hedonistic lifestyle the doctor is merely asked to be the dictator's doctor. Dr Garrigan's outsider status allows him to talk freely with the dictator without being intimidated by his mood swings. It also allows him to gain the trust of the dictator who gives him more and more power and ever greater influence. However, the flip side of this deal is to overlook the Ugandan leader's obvious unstable mental state and later to turn a blind eye to the excesses of the dictator. The penny will finally drop for the Scottish doctor but only when he is fully caught up in the web of deceit and corruption. Can the doctor regain his conscience and make some amends for being seduced by the power of his patient?

This is a remarkable film that does capture the spirit of 1970s Uganda and sheds an interesting light on one of history's more famous and yet lesser known anti-heroes. Forest Whitaker plays an intriguing Idi Amin. He captures his unpredictability and irrationality and yet also puts across the dictator's more human and likable side. He was genuinely popular with many Ugandans and this film shows nicely how reasonable people can be seduced into backing figures who will only later mutate into demons. You could easily overlay Idi Amin's coming to power with that of a certain Adolf Hitler who arose in similar circumstances and only when firmly in power revealed his more sinister side.

Another more modern parallel could be made with Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Idi Amin styled himself as the 'Conqueror of the British Empire' and regularly regaled and teased Uganda's former imperial masters. Just like Mugabe, this was doubly ironic in that both leaders could largely thank the British for getting them into power in the first place (although the British would later regret helping both dictators). Idi Amin had risen to the rank of Lieutenant in the British Army, which was about as high as any Africans had risen in the British Army before independence. He was therefore well placed to rise to the highest ranks of the newly formed Ugandan Army. He was about to be indicted on corruption charges by the (himself corrupt) President Obote when Amin seized power in a coup whilst Obote was attending a Commonwealth summit. Unfortunately, the British Foreign Office tacitly endorsed this seizure of power. Indeed an internal memo described him as "a splendid type and a good football player". It was only when he was firmly ensconced in power did the British (and Ugandans) begin to see his true nature. Political opponents were being murdered in cold blood, he supported terrorist organisations like the PLO and most infamously of all banished all Asians with just 90 days notice. The film captures this descent into hell even if it is with the fictional construct of Dr Garrigan.

Dr Garrigan's character does take a long and exhausting personal journey of discovery. It is easy to empathise with the young doctor being flattered into the inner circle and it is certainly possible to relate to his decisions and see how you yourself might be seduced into making similar choices. At what point would you make a moral stand? would you at all? would you be prepared to die for making any such stand? This is the film's strength. It can and does veer into fictional situations and not all the characters seem to play out their roles fully. However, it does keep coming back to the idea of a regular guy making regular decisions that will eventually have dire consequences - and all in an exotic post-colonial setting. For an insight into post-colonial Uganda, this film offers a fine starting point.

Arrival in Kampala A Job Offer
Kampala Hospital
Avoiding an Ambush A Life of Luxury

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by Stephen Luscombe