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January 23, 2007

The Last King of Scotland is not really telling it like it was, argues A S H Smyth: The Last King of Scotland - Giles Foden; The Last King of Scotland - Kevin Macdonald

Posted by A S H Smyth

The Last King of Scotland
by Giles Foden
London: Faber and Faber, 1998
Paperback, £7.99

The Last King of Scotland
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
certificate 15, 2006
DVD available, £19.99

"A coup?! What, are we safe?"

"Don't worry: these are General Amin's men. He fights for the people. It is a very happy day for us!"

So, give or take, begins the film of The Last King of Scotland. And so, indeed, begins many a new African regime. [Cut to village folk dancing, ululating, and wearing t-shirts sporting the face of the new President. Cue speeches about "action, not words", promises of "new schools, new roads". Everybody - "Together we will make this country better…and stronger… and FREE!"]

Historical fiction is a tricky thing. The writer is expected to adhere to certain rules in order to win the audience and keep them with him. A good example is the way in which Michael Ondaatje refashioned the life of Laszlo von Almasy for The English Patient. Almasy's real life-story was full of controversy and intrigue; just not in a sufficiently clear-cut and linear way to enable a good Hollywood film to be made of it.

So the writer must tweak things here and there. These tweakings are accepted, of course, as long as they don't radically distort the background realities (you can't do the Montezuma story in Australia), and are acknowledged up front (unlike, for example, James Frey's "narratives", editions of which are being given clarifying prefaces as I write).

As a novel The Last King of Scotland is not a rollercoaster, but is pretty good as historical fiction, at least in the detail. The dismembered corpse of one of Amin's wives was sewn back together and viewed by Amin and the children. Amin was often left alone with his dead victims, and did boast that he had eaten human flesh.

Dr Nicholas Garrigan - the "hero" in very large inverted commas - tells us Amin didn't keep heads in his fridge. True enough, I can only find that story recorded with reference to Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Amin's more-nightmarish contemporary in the Central African Republic. Garrigan also says all the rumours about Amin having syphilis or anything like it are unfounded (which makes Amin's guilt all the greater, then: he wasn't clinically ill, just morally sick).

And there are nice literary touches, too, which needn't be strictly accurate to ring true. The ironic recurring motif of the leather-bound Proceedings of the Ugandan Law Society in Amin's playboy bedroom, highlighting a place and time with little law or control of any kind; the equally ironic portrait in Amin's office of Patrice Lumumba, the assassinated President of neighbouring Congo, replaced (like Milton Obote, Amin's predecessor) by his closest confidant and chief of staff.

But it's the major points which are not made well enough, in my view. Specifically the points about Amin's brutal tyranny, and Garrigans's moral complicity.

To read the novel you wouldn't think more than a few thousand people died during Amin's tenure. That is a misrepresentation, and a bad one. [There was a time, not so long ago, when children in British playgrounds would play at being Idi Amin, so fabled was he as the stereotypical African monster.] The book does at some point give a rough body-count for the period; but nowhere in Garrigan's narrative are the true scale of the horrors ever really brought home.

But the novel does at least deal with all eight years of Amin's reign, even if the frequent ducking in and out (the narrator tells his tale from the safety of Scotland, after the fall of Amin) makes it hard to follow the precise chronology. The film is confused in this respect. After a single viewing you might guesstimate that it covers about six weeks of Uganda's turmoil. But asked to summarise Amin's presidency you might also reflect that he was a decent bloke to start with, who only went off the rails much later because he had a bit of a persecution complex. How is there time for that in six weeks? There isn't; the film is trying to have its cake, and eat it. And it only achieves this by failing to tell anywhere near the whole story.

If only the film did document the events of six weeks, then the sum total of the atrocities it is supposed to recall would be marginally closer to the truth. Alas, it does not. If we take the sequence of events at face-value, the film ostensibly covers the 5 ½ years from Amin's takeover in January 1971 to the Entebbe hostage crisis in June/July 1976.

The problem is one of timelines, and though I appreciate that no-one wants a 12-disc, box-set history of Idi Amin's Uganda, the compacting of timelines and characters in a 90-minute film has real effects. And the film can't do retrospect, either, so everything has to be pushed into a neat linear story, totally unlike the muddle of real life, better portrayed in the book.

An example: in the novel Amin gives Garrigan a present, a van clearly appropriated from "Khan Tailors". Such a gift, obviously, has implications for the recipient. But in the film Garrigan cannot be given this van, because it's too early in the all-present-tense drama for him to be implicated in Amin's crimes. So he gets a sports car instead, which, while showing that he is a little too keen on his creature comforts, is hardly in the same league as his accepting the spoils of war in full awareness of their origins. And where, in the novel, such tactical liberties have already been taken, the film only worsens them.

There was much optimism in the immediate aftermath of Amin's coup, and not merely from villagers caught up in his populist rhetoric. Even Uganda's senior civil servants, who presumably knew a little about him by this stage, thought that he seemed to be open to advice and laudably aware of gaps in his knowledge.

But the killings began within months, Stalin-esque purges of army and police officers, disappearances of politicians - even those in his cabinet - and ethnically-motivated attacks on southern tribes like the Langi and Acholi which had supported Obote. As politicians fell by the wayside, Amin replaced them with soldiers, often illiterate and universally incapable of governing. Seeing anyone with education or experience as a threat, Amin went out of his way to embarrass them (the film does illustrate this well, as he lassoes a finance minister at a party, and mocks the health minister's sense of style).

Within a year of seizing power Amin had killed the chief justice, the vice-chancellor of the university, and the Anglican archbishop. This was not the slowly-accelerating slide into political and moral corruption suggested by both book and film. But even in the book there are warning signs - like Amin's own suggestion that he ate human flesh - as early as the opening pages. In the restored chronological order of the film, however, and because Amin must be a nice guy at the outset, this and various other distasteful habits (like his porn-screenings) are not mentioned until near the end. Perhaps accidentally we are invited to recall that power corrupts, an adage that simply doesn't apply when the subject was corrupt to start with.

Then - or, rather, during this time - he turned on the Asian community. The Asians were to Uganda what the Jews had been in inter-war Germany, effective business people who did indeed control lots of industry and (thereby) wealth. And as with the German Jewish population, their misfortune was to be in this situation at a time when Uganda was going bust and was susceptible to radicalism, xenophobia and scapegoating.

The departure of the Asians led immediately to a 40% slump in government revenues. Government services collapsed, shops ran out of products, and the assets left behind by the Asians couldn't even be used to shore up the system because military personnel had seized them all. As a result of this and other endemic misgovernment, the entire national structure collapsed so completely that when Amin died in 2003 Uganda's economy had only just recovered to the level at which it had been when he took power, over three decades before. And yet, as Paul Theroux records in Dark Star Safari, a depressing number of educated Ugandans still believe Amin's rhetoric that the Asians were "sucking our blood".

Perhaps the worst part of all this is that Amin is of minimal importance in the greater scheme of independent-African history. Sure, he reduced his once-hopeful country to a war-ravaged wasteland; but who didn't? In Martin Meredith's 700-page The State of Africa (documenting the collapse of Africa since independence) Amin's catastrophic reign gets all of 7 pages in a chapter entitled "The Coming Of Tyrants": that's a little under a page for each year of his Presidency. He was not, in African terms, a major figure.

Back in the good old days (somewhat before my time), Alan Coren's Collected Bulletins of President Idi Amin made the delightfully non-PC case for the prosecution of Amin's clownish public persona. There should be more of this, frankly: comedy's own "gunboat dipperlomacy", as Coren would have put it. But Coren was/is a humorist. Kevin Macdonald is not, and I can't help feeling there should have been fewer moments when the audience was encouraged to have even the vaguest sympathy for Amin.

Garrigan tries to excuse a lot by references to Amin's wackier habits, like sending absurd and frivolous telegrams to senior world leaders. But, as the film makes rather clearer, the question this should ask of the audience is not "Could such a charismatic chap really be a bad guy?" but "How the hell did it take everyone so long to realise Amin was unhinged?" I have no problem with clowns making people laugh. But clowns making themselves national leaders? Well, let's not press that point…

Amin was trapped between wanting to vaunt his imperial military background - admittedly genuine, and impressive on paper - and wanting to nail his African nationalist credentials to the mast. He persecutes whites, but brings a white man into his service as his "closest adviser". He accepts UK/Israeli help in seizing power, but then turns against the citizens of both those countries. He rants against imperialism, but buys his suits from Savile Row.

Whiteness is a problem for Garrigan, too, and even more for the viewers. Whiteness, and the guilt that comes with it. Foden enables his hero to criticise both sides: as a foreigner he can (or should have been able to) analyse Uganda objectively; as a Scot he can merrily criticise the English/British for their neo-imperialist meddling. The horrible MI6 agent, Stone, makes it even easier for us to feel bad about British involvement, in Uganda specifically, and in the former Empire in general. And yet, why is it that we can't allow ourselves to know that an African dictator was rotten from the start? Or do we desperately cling, Le Carré style, to the belief that since the British supported his accession it is really they who are to blame? Variations on this question can still be asked today, all over Africa.

Garrigan's complicity, then. In the novel, Garrigan is writing for posterity from his bothy in Scotland, consciously recalling and assessing his own behaviour, as well as the general course of events. In the film, this knowing, retrospective narrative voice is absent (though a documentarian could easily have chosen to retain it). This decision works in one notable sense: it gives the film an uninterrupted chronology, beginning and ending with near-identical celebrations over the downfall of a corrupt and vicious government. But the rest of the time it simply encourages the audience to believe that Garrigan really doesn't know what's going on (and couldn't have been expected to find out). The novel, thanks to the narrative voice, is far better about confronting the moral minutiae of the good doctor's life under Amin's wing.

And yet, while Garrigan's complicity is evident enough early on in the novel, it is startling when, at the close, he is hounded by various authorities and the press. Does the book jump in and out of the present too much, or is this the mark of a well-written text: that we, along with Garrigan, do not realise the extent of the complicity inherent in his increasingly desperate way of life? It's troublesome, which is perhaps why it's cut from the film.

Ultimately the film leaves me uncertain as to whether or not I should be sympathising with Garrigan. You feel bad when he gets what was always coming to him, and I freely admit I'd have trouble turning down a job-offer from any President (except perhaps George Bush or Obiang Nguema). But Garrigan is an idiot. Wide-eyed, despite a pretence of worldliness. Mundanely selfish, rather than brilliantly calculating or ambitious. A classic gap-year tosser. A man who says - in his excessively-sincere Scots accent - that he's in Africa "to hailp", but shags the first native girl he meets who speaks enough English to flirt with him. Then tries it on with his colleague and superior's wife. Then impregnates the wife of the President.

I suppose we're supposed to notice his breath-taking naiveté. He doesn't know who runs the country to which he has emigrated. He is shocked that there are only two doctors in the bush hospital to which he's been appointed. He gets caught up in the excitement when Amin's political circus comes to town:

"They sang just like that for Obote, until they realised that he turned their economy into his personal bank account."

"Oh, come on. Give the guy a chance."

"I'm serious. You talk to me in a couple of years."

I'd like to nominate a new word. Wordsmiths decided that the best new word for 2006 was "Plutoed" - meaning, of course, demoted or experiencing some similar drop in status. So I call upon neologists worldwide to support the acceptance of "Garriganed" into the OED: "vb. To blindly walk into a bloody obvious trap and not notice until it is well and truly too late."

Garrigan gets himself deeper and deeper in the mire, through a combination of stupidity and wilful blindness. It doesn't mean I thought he deserved to wind up with meat-hooks through his chest. It just means I wasn't any too sympathetic when, after some imagined infraction, Amin rounds on him and says

And you call yourself my closest adviser!…
and suddenly he realises that a bungalow in the grounds of State House comes with expectations.

When he is saved by a fellow doctor, Garrigan is told:

You deserve to die…. But I am tired of hatred, Dr Garrigan. This country is drowning in it. We deserve better. Go home, tell the world the truth about Amin. They will believe you: you are a white man.
And so Garrigan goes, and tells, and is believed. And Amin fell (though no thanks to Garrigan, in either book or film). And the Ugandans, for their pains, were rewarded with the return of Milton Obote, and a new civil war.

I have made similar remarks here as I made with regard to Marie Antoinette, but reached opposite conclusions: so I should explain myself. I feel the cases are different. Marie Antoinette was made by a girl who makes thoughtful but dainty films, and was telling a part of a story that everyone knows well. French history is not at risk of being permanently re-imagined in the popular mind on account of Ms Coppola's celluloid efforts. Ugandan history, on the other hand, is less clear, and certainly less well-known to Western audiences. For a renowned documentary film-maker, tackling this topic should have brought with it a certain sense of responsibility. 300,000 deaths should not have ended up seeming like 3,000.

In viewing terms, The Last King of Scotland is a fair enough way to spend a couple of hours. But in historical terms, it simply doesn't get away with the same dramatic adjustments Foden made in his original novel, and most of the time only exacerbates them. It's a sad conclusion to reach, but perhaps Ugandan history would have been safer had the film never been made.

A coda on the quirks of fortune and the Israeli connection with Uganda, a country which had been chalked up as one possibility during Theodore Herzl's long quest to establish a Zionist homeland.

Amin was anti-Israel, despite their involvement in his accession (or because he wanted to pretend he'd never had it), largely because he was nominally a Muslim and received money and support from Sudan, Libya and Saudi Arabia for promoting Islam.

In 1976 Amin stupidly demonstrated his solidarity with the Arab world by allowing Palestinian hijackers to divert to Entebbe international airport an Air France plane en route to Israel. Trying to boost his non-existent global status, he did some of the negotiating in person, including with senior Israeli soldiers with whom he had once trained. He secured the release of all the non-Israeli passengers, but unsurprisingly the Israelis didn't consider that a sufficient effort.

The ensuing Entebbe raid to free the remaining 103 hostages was officially called Operation Thunderbolt, but was subsequently renamed Operation Yonatan, after the only Israeli fatality on the mission, one Yonatan Netanyahu. Yonatan's brother, Binyamin, was later to become Prime Minister of Israel. The man who commanded the rescue operation, Dan Shomron, subsequently became Chief of Staff. The medical officer on the raid became minister of health. In Israel, books are still being written about this episode.

In another twist of fate, it was Israeli engineers who had built Entebbe airport. When the hostages were taken there, the engineers promptly gave the Israeli Defence Force their blueprints. It is claimed also that some of the architects were called to the IDF headquarters and asked to build a scale model - whereupon they were promptly interred in the interests of national security, until the episode was over.

In the book it is Garrigan who gives an Israeli former-girlfriend the relevant information about the layout of Entebbe airport (though in fact much of the detail about the hijackers and their weapons came from debriefings of the released non-Jewish passengers). In the film, the raid comes at the climax of the story, and facilitates Garrigan's departure.

Though the Entebbe episode was a massive success for the IDF, a couple of the hostages did die, including Dora Bloch, who had the misfortune to choke on some food at Entebbe and be rushed to hospital. The rescue team, of course, were unable to extract her. Lacking any other target on which to vent his frustration, Amin had her dragged from her hospital bed and killed.

When Obote returned to power, he kept Dora Bloc's body in a bank vault, perhaps wishing to frustrate those who had helped in Amin's takeover, or perhaps unwilling to sully Uganda's reputation any further. Maurice Rogev, a South African forensic scientist who had left Kenya for Israel (under suspicion of working for Mossad), was eventually called in to identify the body. Years later, Rogev achieved prominence again when the body of Joseph Mengele was discovered in Brazil. Both Brazil and neighbouring Argentina had been infamously welcoming to prominent Nazis after WWII. Ironically enough, Argentina had also been on the shortlist of alternative locations for the Zionist homeland.

A S H Smyth is a freelance journalist, specialising in foreign affairs, conflict & security, and Southern Africa.

To read Christie Davies' take on The Last King of Scotland, see: The Last King of Scotland reminds Christie Davies of his youthful visit to pre-Amin Uganda to research the racist persecution of the Asians and his even earlier reflections on the strange appearance and manners of the natives of Caledonia.

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