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The Last King of Scotland

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The movie The Last King of Scotland depicts the bloody regime of Idi Amin (portrayed by Forest Whitaker), military dictator during the 1970s, as he ruled Uganda with an iron fist. Seen through the eyes of a naive, young Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan (played by James McAvoy), the film focuses on the reign of terror unleashed on the Ugandans from which nobody, not even those among the inner circle of the dictator, was considered safe.

The world used to be amused by accounts about Idi Amin’s exploits: his murder of cabinet members to eat their flesh, his many wives, his passion for racing, and his intense paranoia that oftentimes led to the cold-blooded murder of suspected traitors. In the West he was considered something of an oddball as news filtered out about the mass killings of Ugandans. Through The Last King of Scotland, the viewer gets a glimpse of a tyrant whose charismatic appeal ironically enabled him to obtain power and use it against his own people.

A chance encounter brought Garrigan to the attention of the dictator: the presidential car collides with a cow which lies bellowing on the ground. Garrigan comes to the rescue and examines the injured arm of Idi Amin. He proceeds to bandage it but is distracted by the moans of the dying cow. Seeing that no one cared for the animal, Garrigan grabs a pistol lying on the seat and shoots the cow to death. As Amin’s bodyguards trained their guns on him, Garrigan returns the pistol to Amin, who is stunned and impressed by the Scotsman’s courage.

He is delighted upon knowing the doctor was a Scot, the dictator being a staunch admirer of Scotland and its people, notably their brave warriors. (The Last King of Scotland is so titled in reference to Amin’s claim that, fuelled by the same revolutionary fervor as the Scots, was able to drive off the British colonizers; thus he would be their king.). One thing led to another, until Garrigan found himself not only Amin’s personal physician but also his most trusted advisor.

Garrigan at first enjoyed his exalted position in the Ugandan government, but he is increasingly disturbed by the few occasions when he takes a glimpse into the real character of Amin: his erratic moods, sometimes shifting from playful to homicidal. He becomes increasingly afraid of him. A love affair with Kay, one of Amin’s wives who has been forced to live outside of the palace for giving birth to a boy with epilepsy, sealed Garrigan’s doom.

Kay finds herself pregnant but she could not have an abortion in the hospital: Amin would know and order her killed. She goes to the witch doctor who performs the abortion, leaving Kay seriously infected. Garrigan hurries to the hospital where she is taken. He is shocked to see Kay’s dismembered body at the morgue: her legs have been reconnected in a gruesome manner.

Garrigan now seeks to escape but he is apprehended by Amin’s bodyguards. Amin had known of the affair and he ordered Garrigan to be punished. His breast is pierced by steel hooks and hung from the ceiling. Junju, Amin’s former personal physician rescues him while Amin and his bodyguards were away. At that time, an airline filled mostly with Israeli passengers was hijacked by terrorists and forced to land in Uganda. Through Junjun’s help, Garrigan manages to slip away into freedom.

Viewers are usually shocked by the violence inflicted on Kay and on Garrigan. But on a much deeper scale, the film scares with its candid portrayal of a madman having absolute power over his domain. One gets to ask himself: did this really happen? Could it possibly happen in the modern age? And one becomes frightened upon the realization that, yes, it did happen: in the killing fields of Kampuchea under the brutal regime of Pol Pot, in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in the military-ruled republics of South America, in Dr. Doc Duvalier’s Haiti, and is still happening all over the world as Idi Amins in various guises spring into power from being nobodies.

In the film, Amin narrates how he was abused and mistreated by his cruel master, and how he quietly accepted it all. But the once meek and silent former sergeant rose to power by cunning, treachery, and murder. It depicts the cynicism of the West (represented by Stone, a British diplomat) on Amin’s promise of prosperity, but taking no action on the international level to expose his misdeeds. In the end, Stone tried to murder Amin through Garrigan who was told to give him poison in his pills. Forewarned, Amin never took them.

There was no worldwide condemnation of Idi Amin’s regime despite the atrocities committed under his rule. It took another country’s intervention to bring about his fall and exile. But the estimated 300,000 victims under his rule never obtained justice. Moreover, the film leaves unanswered several questions that have been debated since the colonizers of Africa and other lands retreated to their homeland, leaving the natives to fend for themselves. Pro-colonists have always maintained that left to themselves, backward nations would revert to their primitive state in engage in fratricidal wars.

Anti-colonists counter that newborn republic fail to live up to their idelas of independence owing to the prevalent illiteracy and poverty; one could not be ignorant and free. In an enlightened society, the rise of dictators is prevented by the intellectuals, backed by an enlightened citizenry who uphold the rule of law, and who insist on civilian rule over the military. People of poor countries are vulnerable to the emergence of charismatic leaders who promise them a better life, like moths drawn to a flame.

As Idi Amin passes through the impoverished countrysides, he is mobbed by throngs of his adoring countrymen. He regales them with grandiose plans, with visions of prosperity and superior way of life over the white man. Amin knew his politics, as did Hitler. And if we consider how the latter managed to rise into power despite the level of education and enlightenment in Europe, one can easily understand how quickly the gullible peasants of Uganda embraced the myth of Idi Amin. In retrospect, we know they never had a chance.

One question lingers: how can the world prevent the rise of another Idi Amin? As long as there is widespread poverty, ignorance, superstition, combined with the nonchalant attitude of the West, who are more concerned with their internal problems while thousands die in Africa and elsewhere, somebody will always have the potential capability to grab power.

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