History in Films: The Last King of Scotland

The Last King of Scotland (2006) directed by Kevin MacDonald is a savvy film showcasing fantastic acting by Forest Whitaker and James McAvoy. The film deviates from historical facts by inserting a fictional Scottish doctor, Dr. Nicholas Garrigan, played by McAvoy. Set in the 1970s, it’s a political thriller surrounding military dictator, the third president of Uganda, Idi Amin. The film weaves factual events of Amin’s rule and the unlikely pairing of Idi Amin’s hate for all things British and his love for all things Scottish by declaring himself King of Scotland. The western press portrayed Idi Amin as a monster listing cannibalism, his penchant for voodoo, the mass slaughtering of approximately 300,000 of Ugandans as evidence of his megalomania.  He was exiled and died in 2003.

It is an outstanding film for several reasons.I love how the makers of the film took care in portraying the multi-faceted leader and all his sides: charming, loving, overwhelmed, confused, sadistic, and a monster. He was Macbeth personified.

Military dictatorships in any country follow a similar pattern. First, convince the people you are there to save them from the established government. Promise better schools and roads. Second, strike a military coup and insert your jackals to carry out your policies. Three, disregard your people’s needs and wants and rule by force instead of through a court system. Four, lose control and be ousted by the next military dictator. Repeat.

The narrative is told through the perspective of the young Scottish doctor longing to escape the provincial confines of rural Scotland and seek adventure and thrills. McAvoy is brilliant as Dr. Garrigan. His energy, his expressive face, his accent within the Ugandan setting is perfect. He becomes the unlikely top advisor and aide to Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin. One must consider Forest’s acting in this role as one of the best given; his total transformation was inspiring. I can’t think of another actor alive or dead who could have pulled off such a complicated character as Forest Whitaker.

I enjoyed watching the making of the film and seeing the actual footage of the dictator and the response from his people and the Western press. Portrayed as nothing short of evil, a black Stalin, his reign lasted from 1971-1979. Amin was a charismatic man and the quote given in the film by Dr. Garrigan, “You are a child and that’s what makes you so scary” sums up the giant. The screenplay written by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock, adapted from the book by Giles Foden, is effective and allows for the actors to put their hearts into the role. The only wasted role in the film was by Gillian Anderson, lonely wife at the mission Dr. Garrigan volunteers at.

The last third of the film is worth any wait. Garrigan shrinks with horror from his foolish decisions and trapped surroundings. The airport escape scene is downright harrowing and will have you holding your breath wondering how Dr. Garrigan will escape his torturous predicament. Watching McAvoy and Whitaker on the screen is a cinematic delight.

If The Last King of Scotland slipped by you when it first came out, I highly recommend this film for establishing the complicated historical climate and sharing the horrifying story of a dictator who lost control.

15 thoughts on “History in Films: The Last King of Scotland

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  1. Both actors in this movie are great, but it’s mainly Whitaker who walks away with the whole show. Definitely makes sense why he won an Oscar. Good review Cindy.


  2. Great review Cindy. It’s a shame about the insertion of a fictional character but I have to admit that it worked. It was exciting stuff and both McAvoy and Whitaker were superb!


  3. Awesome post Cindy! “He was Macbeth personified.” Wow, I need to see that despite the violence that I’ve been warned about, esp. in regards to McAvoy’s character. Btw, you said he was brilliant as Dr. McAvoy, for a moment I thought his name is the same as his character?? You meant as Dr. Garrigan right? 😉


  4. Whitaker … a tuff portrayal of just how sinister, volatile and unstable this madman must have been. Can you imagine being around such an insane character? I wonder if it’s really possible to understand such a thing? and therefore portray it?


    1. Great call, there. However, Whitaker surely seemed to grasp the complexities of the dictator. I watched some videos regarding Amin and he seemed to be both sweet and charming as well as sadistic. Ugh. Thanks for commenting, JC


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