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Tuesday
Nov182008

The Last King of Scotland

Were this film to aim at historical accuracy, its subject would be a Dutchman generally known to scholars by this name.  An ideally cinema–ripe monarch, he had a short but eventful reign, even participated in a glorious revolution, and to this day is still eulogized by some Protestants for his unwavering valor in the face of Catholic ambitions.  In the right hands, one can imagine how heroic all these acts would become.  William’s incitement of the Dutch masses to lynch the De Witt brothers, the only peacetime political assassination in the Netherlands for 330 years until the 2002 killing of Pim Fortuyn, would be tactfully omitted.  In its place we would get some ludicrous confrontation with the Sun King, and a detailed account of the busy happenings of June 29-30, 1688.  There would also be melodrama galore with Mary, William’s wife, co–regent, first cousin, and co–conspirator (truly a couple with a lot in common), and tears of reptilian anguish at William’s coronation after her young death.  He would end his days as so many despots do, coughing and repenting half–heartedly in a bed the size of one of his peasants' shanties as his two toadiest advisers walk slowly arm–in–arm through his bedroom's massive double doors and grieve humanity’s loss of yet another great man.  We have seen many such movies.  They appeal to the particular mind who likes his history like his cocktails: that is, mixed with an inordinate number of artificial ingredients that please the palate, make his head spin, and confound him as to what exactly he might have consumed.  For better or worse, the historical novel continues simultaneously to entertain and misinform.  It will always be a surefire means to evoke emotion and stifle indifference towards all kinds of interesting facts and personages.  Herein lies its main goodness, if I may call it that: we learn of something that happened in the past and then choose to investigate its actual details.  In this and perhaps only this respect, such novels may be justifiably commended.  

The book and film The Last King of Scotland are based on the reign of this Ugandan dictator and former boxer whose name has come to be synonymous with evildoing.  Statistics vary, but they are revolting in all their versions.  Amin’s reign was also short and eventful, and much was made of his personality since people tend to be impressed by loudmouthed bullies who speak well and carry a big stick.  I suspect that many champions of the downtrodden were also enamored with the fact that Africa suddenly had a larger–than–life, charismatic leader who completely disrespected the mores of Europe, especially those of the British colonialists under whose rule Amin was born.  And countless were the former British subjects who must have cackled in Schadenfreude as the sun set on the Great Empire and the last tattered Union jacks slipped quietly over a tropical horizon.  But the Scots have always been stuck on the same island as England, and have never quite managed to shake themselves loose (despite the recent election of this man as Prime Minister).  Could there be, Amin probably asked himself, a more demagogic self–appellation than King of the Scots?  Yes, the King of Scotland, because that implies both nation and territory.  Having leafed through the book, I cannot say I know it.  It is inspired by the life and machinations of this Briton, who counseled both Amin and the man he overthrew and replaced (and who would return the favor), Milton Obote.  The film, which garnered Forest Whitaker a trophy case of much–deserved hardware, including an Academy Award, has a very simple storyline.  Our lodestar is Nicholas Garrigan, a young Scottish physician (James McAvoy) looking for a bit of adventure (it is, after all, the 1970s).  To be more specific, he is looking for any way out of cold and dreary Edinburgh.  He picks Africa, eventually meeting Amin on a rough stretch of Ugandan road when the latter is in need of a doctor.  Amin first thinks he is British and is pleased to learn of his more northern roots.  Amin claims he loves Scotland, owing in no small part to the fact that he and the Scots share a common oppressor.  A Faustian pact is struck and Dr. Garrigan becomes Dr. Garrigan, personal physician to the King of Scotland himself.

It is strange how no one seems to have learned that the Devil, or any of his various manifestations in human form, never allows you to pay your debts back when you're ready to do so.  What he wants instead is loyalty, blind loyalty, so that his power may never be questioned, and Amin is generous, warm, and confiding, so that he may never be charged with being too distant.  He tells Garrigan everything about his politics, his wives (including one that catches Garrigan’s eye), his hobbies, and the evergreen future of a free Uganda.  He also, in weak moments (Whitaker is fabulous at shifting tones at the drop of an army boot), tells Garrigan about the naughty things he has had to do in order to attain such a position of leadership.  Compromises, broken vows, unfortunate casualties.  Of course what he tells him is a bunch of codswallop, but he has confessed his sins to his priest and so his soul is clean.  What more can you expect from a man who tries to do good but commits atrocities?  A familiar formula, and one prescinding from the lack in Amin’s country of everything except atrocities.  What is perhaps most telling is that Garrigan does not walk the path of the damned with conviction.  He never really believes that Amin has good intentions, nor is he fully aware of how sticky his employer’s web truly is.  Garrigan just hopes that things will boil over and he will be able to return to Scotland, or anywhere except hot and dangerous Uganda, in one piece.  That he involves himself with one of Amin’s wives is testimony not only of his stupidity, but of his general disbelief that any of this could actually be happening.  “You think this is a game?” asks Amin in a magnificent scene late in the film.  “We are real.  This is real.”  The we, by the way, is all of Uganda.  And it’s horrible to think that only then does Garrigan understand he is no longer leaning back on his bed in his parents’ house in Scotland and dreaming of an Africa he knows nothing about.

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