Sunday, 11 September 2011


“Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.” – Robert Penn Warren

We watched a very interesting film at the weekend, made all the more absorbing as it was about a real political figure and actual events surrounding his life. It was the 2006 Kevin MacDonald film “The Last King of Scotland” which was based on the events of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s brutal regime as seen by his Scottish personal physician during the 1970s. It was another of these films that we had got because it was on special and we had thought would be good viewing. In this instance, we were proven right and we enjoyed watching this movie, even though it was quite violent and confronting. Being old enough to remember the events in the news at the time they were happening also helped engage us and overall, we were absorbed by it during the whole 121 minutes of its duration.

For his portrayal of Idi Amin in this film, Forest Whitaker won the Academy Award for Best Actor, a BAFTA, the Screen Actors’ Guild Award for Best Actor (Drama), and a Golden Globe. He does a phenomenal acting job and the film is his in terms of carrying off the acting laurels. James McAvoy plays the role of a young, recently graduated Scottish doctor who travels on a whim to Uganda as a means of escaping from his domineering father and secondarily to do some medical work in a developing country. His role is a fictional one (coming from Giles Foden’s novel of the same name on which the movie is based), but the character has been incorporated into the actual events seamlessly. He plays the role well and with gusto, supporting Forest Whitaker ably. Gillian Anderson, David Oyelowo, Kerry Washington and Simon McBurney also play their supporting roles with panache and are every convincing.

The film manages to capture the madness of the man who was responsible for over 300,000 deaths in Uganda during his rule and there is an almost documentary feel to the movie. It has an excellent music score with some local African song and music, but also some unlikely renditions of Scottish songs and popular hits “African-style”. The cinematography is taut and sparse, lingering on critical key scenes as it should in order to heighten their dramatic impact. One got the immediacy of a newsreel, but with quite good touches of good cinema that involved the viewer and kept the interest up. The documentary feel of the film is heightened by some actual footage that has been incorporated into the film (once again quite seamlessly and unobtrusively), which contribute to the authentic feel of the movie.

The transformation of Dr Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) character from a devil-may-care, free-thinking, shallow, adventure-loving, womaniser, to a scared, concerned, and enlightened person who becomes aware of the damage he has done to countless people is a strong narrative counterpoint to the portrayal of Amin initially as Uganda’s saviour and then the country’s torturing and murderous jailer. His instability of mind and his increasing brutality are introduced gradually until at the end of the movie one is horrified by the image of the dictator who sheds the blood of his countrymen quite nonchalantly.

We recommend this film, with one reservation. The use of “faction” (fictionalised fact) by contemporary novelists has produced some very compelling work, such as the novel on which this film is based. There is some caution to be exercised in this type of literature (and the work derived form it), however, as confessing to write “faction”, writers exonerate themselves from any real obligation to the truth. They can altering or invent events to suit their own purposes and give a false impression of history. Invented characters like that of Dr Garrigan can prove to be particularly tenacious in our collective consciousness and may assume a life of their own, especialy as people are more likely to see this film rather than read history books or examine the primary sources that relate to the life of Idi Amin.

Our post-literate society encourages us subscribe to the mentality of: “If you believe it, then it’s true”. We can throw overboard rules of evidence, the search for authentic documentary sources, the naked truth surrounding events (however dull and boring they may be sometimes) with disastrous consequences. When fictionalising history, whether in novels, in films or on television, we can fall into a trap and raise a new generation that will believe anything that popular media will feed it, holus-bolus. As a literary invention the character of Dr Garrigan is compelling, as a factionalised persona, he blunts the truth and can obscure the appreciation of historical actuality by a lazy audience.

An interesting article on faction by ‘The Guardian’ journalist Anthony Beevor can be found here and makes for quite interesting reading.


  1. loved that movie- bacically becouse i didnot like any of the heroes. but i liked the story...

  2. I think I'll give that one a miss Nic..... Looks like theres too much violence in it.......