Saturday, November 20, 2010


There have been many remarkable displays of admiration (not to mention asininities) among intellectuals towards 20th Century tyrants.  John Reed went so gaga over Lenin that he could hardly contain himself in his book, Ten Days that Shook the World.*  Ezra Pound favorably compared Mussolini to Thomas Jefferson.   Charles Lindbergh campaigned vigorously to keep the United States out of World War II because his visit to Germany convinced him of the Nazi’s superior military strength.  Alexis Carrel, winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine (and a close friend of Lindbergh’s), had openly declared the superiority of the Nordic races and supported euthanistic governmental policies in Man the Unknown, and this earned him a position with the Vichy government (the puppet government of the Nazi Party) in France after the German invasion in World War II.  George Bernard Shaw sent letters and postcards of praise to both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.  Jean Paul Sartre, who vigorously denounced Hitler for Nazi atrocities, became an avid Maoist during the late 1950s.  And Che Guevara, of course, wanted to export Castro’s idea of reforms to all developing nations.  With all of this as a backdrop, the premise of The Last King of Scotland that a Scottish physician should become the lackey of Idi Amin is not so farfetched.
Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), the physician in question, would have to go down as one of the most inane of characters in all movie history.  He seems utterly incapable of appreciating the consequences of his own actions.  He travels to Uganda in the search for adventure.  He takes a white married woman, Sarah Merit (Gillian Anderson), with whom he wants to have an affair, out into the jungle to see one of Idi Amin’s speeches.  While treating Amin’s hand after an accident involving a jeep and a steer, Nicholas pulls impulsively Amin’s gun out of the holster and shoots the steer to end its misery.  Only by being from Scotland (which Amin has a strange fascination for) is Nicholas saved from being shot, and miraculously Amin (Forest Whitaker) decides to appoint Nicholas as his own personal physician.  Nicholas then has an affair with one of Amin’s wives, Kay (Kerry Washington), and gets her pregnant.  Through conversations he has with the wife and with a British agent (Simon McBurney) he begins to learn of all of Amin’s atrocities.  Nicholas makes a half-ass attempt to poison Amin and for this (along with the affair with Amin’s wife) he is tortured.  (Amin’s wife, Kay, incidentally, is mutilated and murdered at the request of the ruler.)  Fortunately for Nicholas, a native physician (David Oyelowo) helps Nicholas escape Uganda with other refugees from the recent Entebbe hijacking.  (The native physician, who is shot because of this, saved Nicholas because he hates Amin – not because he has any respect for Nicholas.  He wants Nicholas to go back to Scotland and tell the story about what really is happening in Uganda.)
The Last King of Scotland is based upon a novel by Giles Foden and is directed by Kevin McDonald.  Since it is based upon a novel with a historical backdrop it obviously cannot be taken as the gospel truth, though that probably won’t stop some college student from citing it as a source on a term paper.  Artistically speaking, the story is simple enough to have an “authentic ring” to it.  Admittedly, this is a vague statement.  I’m always troubled with historical pieces (especially in Hollywood) because of the tendency to mix up fact with fiction.  Since Amin had little problem with torturing and killing his own ministers, and since Amnesty International estimated the Amin regime was responsible for the death of around 300,000 Ugandan citizens (probably an extremely low estimate), most of what happened in this movie seems perfectly believable.  Forest Whitaker as Amin comes across as appropriately demented.  Amin is shown as alternately charming and menacing.  He seems to enjoy practical jokes and has an interest in pornographic films.  He is an obvious product of his culture and understands Uganda’s native practices.  (However, there is particular irony in a 300-pound dictator in a nation of starving people proclaiming himself as the voice of the Uganda nation.)  He can at one point smile amiably and then turn on someone because of his paranoia.
As cruel as he is, Amin still has more integrity than Nicholas.  Amin never pretends that what is going on around him is a game.  He knows the dangers that come along with holding so much power.  Nicholas, on the other hand, plays dumb to avoid being blamed for anything.  He would like to remain blameless.  At one point, Nicholas reports to the President that one of Amin’s primary advisers was speaking to a British diplomat.  Naturally, the adviser is never heard from again.  Nicholas protests to Amin that he did not want the adviser killed, and Amin’s reply is, “What did you expect?”  In deed, what did Nicholas expect?  Nicholas saw this as an opportunity to move up in the esteem of his chosen leader and it cost a man his life.  Nicholas also cost the life of Amin’s beautiful wife by not having the sense to stay away from her.  And he costs the life of the native doctor simply because that individual rescued Nicholas from being tortured to death.  Nicholas is responsible for all of this, though the most he can do about it is pout.
Nicholas wants to have the prestige of holding a powerful position without having to be accountable for it.  He came to Uganda to be entertained, but then he quickly wants to pack up his bags and leave when he discovers that it is not that simple.  He pursues married women because he wants the pleasures without the commitment.  Nicholas has the knowledge and the skills to be an asset to whatever community he belongs, but he wastes all of his potential by not having any character.  No one is better off for getting to know him.  Nicholas is the white and educated European who either piously comes to a foreign nation to save them from themselves, or looks at his whole mission there as little more than an adventure.  Nicholas didn’t know anything about Uganda when he arrived.  He chose Uganda simply by putting his finger on the globe.  Nicholas lacks the real kind of life experience for what he is to face.  He also lacks the humility to admit to himself that he cannot handle the type of situation that he puts himself in.  So rather than become a tool for the good, he becomes a pawn for an evil tyrant.
Since Nicholas can casually pretend not to know what Amin represents or fail to believe Amin is someone as bad if not worse than Obote (the leader that Amin had ousted from power), he is also comfortable in not feeling accountable for what follows.  He’s not so different from the intellectuals I’ve mentioned who seem to make a game out of the truth.  Native people in nations such as Uganda or Communist China are not in the position of a doctor like Nicholas or a philosopher like Sartre to favor one kind of tyranny over another without repercussions.  Sartre condemned the poison of Nazi thought, and he praised the violence of the Cultural Revolution as being "profoundly moral."  Sartre preferred not to blur the labels between left, right, center, liberal, conservative or moderate.  Differentiating between two different types of oppression on intellectual and political grounds was Sartre’s justification for his inconsistent and pathetic moral stand.  His intellect would not admit to a mistake.  Sartre did not have the personal courage to face down the tyranny that came forth from an ideology that he had praised.  Nicholas did not have the personal courage to face down another type of tyranny because it would interfere with his irresponsibility.
Since The Last King of Scotland does not contain a theme with great commercial appeal, a small number of individual scenes were added to draw people in.  I find it disconcerting that Amin’s wife, who so deeply understands the repulsive character of her husband and is totally aware of what he is capable of doing, would allow herself to so easily be drawn into an affair with the worthless Nicholas.  She had to know the consequences of her actions to herself and to Nicholas (not to mention her young son).  Almost the entire justification for sticking this affair into the film was to show her beautiful naked profile in bed.  We could very much have appreciated her beauty without this, and we could have respected her character more if she had rejected Nicholas entirely.  Still, she turned out to be the most sympathetic of the major characters in the movie.  
The attributes of The Last King of Scotland do outweigh its liabilities.  The three main leads play their parts well and are believable as flawed human beings.  Whitaker takes it one step beyond that by playing the variety of different sides of a madman.  I would have preferred a few more shots of the Ugandan countryside and its people.  Uganda, besides being a country that reeled under political oppression, has also been, like so many other African nations, a country where millions of children have died because of starvation and disease.  Until we understand the very real problems of these nations, we will never understand how a despot like Amin could ever so easily have come to power.  That The King of Scotland manages to get this point across better than most movies is not necessarily high praise.  The Last King of Scotland is nevertheless an intelligent movie, which is rare. 
* With so many educated people even today buying into the myth of the existence of a “socialist paradise” under the rule of the venerable Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (better known as Lenin), we should probably cut John Reed a bit of slack.  That Lenin did not overthrow the Czar as is commonly believed, but instead overthrew a Constitutional Democracy headed up by Aleksandr Kerensky (whose government had forced the abdication of the Czar) is something that does not get taught in our high school civic courses.  Lenin actually started the practice of trial by shooting and the purges that Stalin would later become infamous for.  (The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn makes for some very good reading on this point.)  As only a few million individuals perished while he was in power, Lenin simply did not live long enough to do more damage.  When Khrushchev famously exposed the crimes of the Stalin regime, he neglected to mention the crimes of Lenin because to do so would have had the effect of undercutting the whole justification for the existence of the Soviet regime.  It would also have deprived the people of Moscow of their greatest tourist attraction: Lenin’s Tomb on display in Red Squire where tens of thousands of Russian people can see for themselves how the corpse gets better looking over time.
March 6, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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