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May 18, 2007

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

Posted by Christie Davies

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

The Last King of Scotland has good actors and good cameramen but it can not be called a good film. The story line is tedious, a mere jumping from event to event like a half-baked documentary, the visual equivalent of sound bites. The dialogue is banal and the words wooden. There is not a single memorable line. Producers often seem to forget that films with human beings in them have to work through words, as well as images, because they are the main way in which individuals communicate, including even the inarticulate, throat-rasping Scots. A dreadful script, full of sound and fury.

It is a pity also that because the film was made with American support and with an eye on the American market, the main parts of Idi Amin and his wife are not played by Africans but by black Americans. Such is the power of American cultural imperialism. The Africans got only the minor parts and even then some have West African not Ugandan surnames, which makes about as much sense as an African film director getting a Greek to play an Estonian, on the grounds that all white people look the same. It matters not, for Texas-born Forest Whitaker is not only a very fine actor indeed but worked hard on the part, getting the Ugandan accent right and even putting on 20 kilos to gain Amin' girth. Above all he knew exactly how to play a violent, paranoid nutter of the kind that ought to be sectioned but seldom is.

Kerry Washington from the Bronx is also perfect in the part of Kay Amin, one of Muslim Amin's many wives. With the splendid exception of the sinister Simon Montague McBurney, the white actors are total rubbish, though in fairness this is mainly because their parts are so feebly conceived. Besides, who can compete with an Amin who lurches unpredictability between cruelty, friendliness and buffoonery. The film is worth seeing for Whitaker, Washington and McBurney's acting skills but not for much else. Enjoy it and forget it.

The Last King of Scotland is a tale of two repulsive Scotsmen. The first is a newly graduated, albeit with a poor degree, compulsively smoking, Scottish physician, Dr Nicholas Garrigan who is desperate to escape his grim homeland and a sententious father, as tedious as Dr Finlay of Tannochbrae, and have "fun" abroad. He literally spins a plastic globe to see where he can go to. Canada? No, Uganda it is. He arrives at a mission hospital in the sticks and promptly tries to seduce the regular mission doctor's wife having already shagged a Ugandan woman, a complete stranger, on the way there. Joyless fun in the tradition of the clap-ridden James Boswell and his love of knee-tremblers in alleyways or the antinomian Holy Willie:

I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
When thousands Thou hast left in night,
That I am here before Thy sight,
For gifts an' grace
A burning and a shining light
To a' this place.
A doctor in Uganda

But yet, O Lord! confess I must:
At times I'm fash'd wi fleshly lust;
For doctors' wives, and then in warldly trust,
Vile self gets in;
But Thou remembers we are dust,
Defiled wi' sin.

O Lord! yestreen, Thou kens, wi' Meg―
Thy pardon I sincerely beg―
O, may't ne'er be a living plague
To my dishonour!

An' I'll ne'er lift a lawless leg
Again upon her.

Besides, I farther maun avow―
Wi' Amin's wife, three times, I trow―
But, Lord, that Friday I was fou,
When I cam near her,
Or else, Thou kens, Thy servant tru
Wad never steer her.

Yes that's Garrigan, straight out of the serious Burns unit in the infirmary.

The other dreadful Scot is the massive Idi Amin, who shares wee Garrigan's underwog resentment of the English and wants to become King of Scotland in the manner of Mel Gibson as Braveheart. Given Scotland's history of political instability and frequent killing of kings prior to 1603, senseless massacres of rival clans and total obsession with witchcraft, Idi Amin, with his exotic English, would have made an excellent ruler of that benighted country. Perhaps after Scotland becomes independent, Mr Salmond will offer the post to Amin's grandson, son of Amin's tenth son Jaffar. Jaffar Amin is very upset by the film's portrayal of his father and says his own son is a "carbon copy" of Idi Amin Dada.

It is surprising that, apart from a passing reference to Africans preferring witch-doctors to doctors, more is not made in the film of these obvious connections with Scotland's past. We could have done with Amin, Thane of Glamis, consulting the three witches during a typical early afternoon Ugandan thunderstorm, when it rains so hard the wipers can't cope.

All hail, Amin!, that shalt be king hereafter.
Amin did, and does in the film, try very hard to be a real Scotsmen. He dresses up in their absurd kilt and bonnet and forces African women to sing sentimental Scottish songs, while he plays the part of a Scotsman and an accordion very well. Amin even names his son McKenzie Campbell. Amin's only defect was that he was not ugly enough to be a Scotsman, a fact he himself admits when he speaks in the film of the Scots' red hair,
which we Africans find quite disgusting.
With the red hair, of course, comes translucent skin, freckles, pale eyes and a face that turns bright red after a few drams. Both the pallor and the alcoholism are a product of Darwinian evolution, an adaptation by natural selection to the sunless hell of Scotland, where in winter the sun rises at about eleven in the morning and sets at lunchtime. Scottish babies have to be swaddled against the cold and need an almost albino face to suck in the odd sunbeam.

I thought of all this when Dr Garrigan foolishly chose to seduce Idi Amin's wife, Kay. As the camera drooled over her firm, perfectly shaped, cleft and hued, bare black bottom, I could see why the lustful Dr Garrigan had abandoned the pale, mottled, creased and freckled buttocks of the women of Caledonia with their hint of ginger down. Except to a malarial mosquito there can be few sights in Africa less appealing. The Africans in the film, not unfairly, refer to Dr Garrigan himself as "Idi Amin's white monkey".

Sadly but honestly, the Scots in Africa are aware of their own unattractiveness compared with the local people. There is a Scottish story of a medical missionary in Uganda whose wife died. He sent home to headquarters in Scotland to provide him with a new bride from their stock of pious spinsters willing to enter an arranged, indeed foreordained, marriage. She came and died of excess sun as did her successor. A fourth was found and dispatched and he took the train down to Mombasa to meet her off the boat. As she came down the gangway, the Scot groaned:

Not red hair and freckles again. After all my prayers.
Yet in a way it was what he deserved. After his first marriage in Scotland, he and his bride had gone straight from the ceremony to take the train to Glasgow where a cargo-boat was waiting. The bride suddenly understood her future and began to cry.
What is it?
the unco'guid doctor asked. She sobbed,
My hands are cold and nobody loves me.
His stern reply came:
God loves you and you can sit on your hands.
Amin meets Garrigan by chance when he patches up Amin's hand after a road accident and appoints him first as his personal physician and then his political adviser. This allows wee Dr G to be gratuitously rude to officials at the British High Commission whom he calls "bloody English". Then the intrigues turns nasty and Garrigan is implicated in murder. Amin steals his British passport and gives him a Ugandan one. Now young Nick has to run to the hated English and grovel to be rescued. They prove to be shrewd and well informed and not the empty clowns he thought he had mocked earlier. An MI6 man now demands he work for them.
I have rights
bleats Dr Garrigan , suddenly wanting to be English. The Englishman replies:
Fuck your rights, you have to work your passage.
Quite so. It's the only language they understand.

Nicholas Garrigan is a fool. That is all that can be said about him. His obsession with tupping every woman in sight leads him to get Idi Amin's wife pregnant. She, knowing that to produce a brick-topped baby with a Scottish nose will lead to her death, begs Dr Garrigan for an abortion. Banal talk about ethics follows. Amin finds out anyway and has Garrigan badly beaten up and hung from meat hooks in the manner favoured by the late Adolf Hitler. Like Hitler, Amin was a monster, comic at a safe distance, as wonderfully depicted by Alan Coren, and genocidal on the spot. Under Amin 300,000 Ugandans were murdered. To the horror of the Grauniad readers African Power has proved to be as horrible as Aryan Power and just as racist.

It was all quite predictable. Just as the disasters of the Soviet Union were the product of the system and not just of Stalin's paranoia, so too Uganda's fate was a product not just of Amin but of African racism. This is only seen but briefly in the film. Amin decides to expel the Asians and Garrigan tries to intervene to rescue the Sikh tailor who had made his suit. It is a re-enactment of the story told to me by my old friend Rabbi Schus of Skokie, whose father, a schneider in Vienna in 1938, when the Nazis moved in, was rescued by a grateful customer among the storm-troopers to whom he had sold a very durable coat.

It is also the reason why I was in Uganda just before Garrigan was. I went there in the summer of 1969 with a tape recorder to interview Asians, who even under Obote were fearful of being persecuted and expelled. In theory I needed a permit but the Ugandan officials would never have given me one for such a sensitive issue. When I left I carried the tape-recorder but someone else carried the tapes. As cover I made a series of recordings of local music at the museum that used to be the organic palace of the Kabaka of Baganda and had them in my hand luggage. I could probably have sold them to the makers of this noisy film as a bit of "colourful" background. Film makers like that kind of rubbish and indeed they have put in various bits of "authentic" ululation and gyrating to prove we really are in Uganda and not on location in Lewisham or Atlanta.

When I returned to England I took up my first post as a lecturer at a northern university, where they had some kind of African studies outfit. I was asked to give a guest lecture about the Asians of East Africa, mainly because the scrawny female lefty in charge wanted to make the British government look bad for being tardy in admitting Asian British passport holders from the region. Instead I spoke of the hideous, anti-Semitic type, racial hatred expressed towards the Asians by the black Africans. I played recordings of decent middle class African professional men denouncing the Asians as blood-suckers who were plotting to take over Uganda. The earnest, passive, dutiful students took notes and the leftist in charge looked as sick as a Macaw, as they say in Scotland.

At question time two incandescent white liberals told me that the solution to the Asian question was a purely African matter for the Africans to sort out in their own way and that I had no right to comment. I suppose they hoped I would back off, as young sociology lecturers tend to do when outflanked on the left. Instead I asked if they would have spoken the same way about Jews in Germany in the 1930s and they walked out. "Cet animal est très méchant. Quand on l'attaque,il se défend" is the lefties' view of the world. At the end the chairwoman wouldn't speak to me and I left alone by the door at the far end of the lecture hall. As I did so I was greeted by a group of Ugandan Asians who had sat quietly at the back throughout. They said:

You are the only person who has told the truth and spoken up for us.
I still remember how glad I felt. No-one in England would publish my work at the time, since before Amin you couldn't call Africans racist. Still I had the last laugh. I published it in India, which led to a long friendship with my Indian editor A. B. Shah and to my being invited to lecture about the Ugandan Asians at universities in Gujarat and the Punjab.

That was the reality of Uganda but you wouldn't guess it from the film where the expulsion of the Asians seems to be represented as a whim of Amin's and wrong only because it is being done too hastily. The truth is that the Asians created Uganda. Asian, not African, labour built the railway to the coast, at great personal cost. Here is Lieut.-Col. J. H. Patterson, D.S.O.'s account of their fate at the jaws of the man-eaters of Tsavo in 1897:

Hurrying to the place at daylight I found that one of the lions had jumped over the newly erected fence and had carried off the hospital bhisti (water-carrier), and that several other coolies had been unwilling witnesses of the terrible scene which took place within the circle of light given by the big camp fire.

The bhisti, it appears, had been lying on the floor, with his head towards the centre of the tent and his feet neatly touching the side. The lion managed to get its head in below the canvas, seized him by the foot and pulled him out.

In desperation the unfortunate water-carrier clutched hold of a heavy box in a vain attempt to prevent himself being carried off, and dragged it with him until he was forced to let go by its being stopped by the side of the tent. He then caught hold of a tent rope, and clung tightly to it until it broke. As soon as the lion managed to get him clear of the tent, he sprang at his throat and after a few vicious shakes the poor bhisti's agonising cries were silenced for ever. The brute then seized him in his mouth, like a huge cat with a mouse, and ran up and down the boma looking for a weak spot to break through. This he presently found and plunged into, dragging his victim with him and leaving shreds of torn cloth and flesh as ghastly evidences of his passage through the thorns.

Dr Brock and I were easily able to follow his track, and soon found the remains about four hundred yards away in the bush. There was the usual horrible sight. Very little was left of the unfortunate bhisti - only the skull, the jaws, a few of the larger bones and a portion of the palm with one or two fingers attached. On one of these was a silver ring, and this, with the teeth (a relic much prized by certain castes), was sent to the man's widow in India.

Far from being blood-suckers, the Asians gave their blood for Uganda. Later, major Asian entrepreneurs ran the modern sectors of the economy. Every village had an Asian shop; rather like England in fact. The Asians had no privileges. They were not subsidised parasites like the European hangers-on of independent African governments or the untaxed fat-cat employees of international organisations living club-class and five-star. The Asians arrived poor and what they had they had worked for, much like the Jews in Britain or the Koreans in America who have been the victims of similar prejudice. Under Amin racial hatred became so intense that some Asians would blacken themselves with boot-polish before going out so that they would not be attacked in the street.

And don't give me any shit about this hatred being "post-colonial". It was exactly like European anti-Semitism or the feelings behind the Turkish genocide of the Armenians or attacks on overseas Chinese. It is always successful "alien" entrepreneurial minorities who are on the receiving end of the worst racial hatred and yet today's lefties often no longer find this kind of rejection morally shocking. Indeed they sometimes try to justify it.

Yet it is far worse in its intensity and in its consequences than the kind of ordinary antipathy that inevitably exists between people with markedly differing cultures and traditions that often leads only to mere exchanges of abuse. An English audience watching Dr Garrigan in the film will instantly dislike him as a rude, uncouth, self-consciously "inferior" Scotsman, chips with everything including shoulders, who can't keep his resentment at not being English to himself. We all know the type. Yet however much the English may look down on the Scots or resent the disproportionate political power they exercise within our unfairly distorted electoral system, they do not hate them, nor are they ever likely to do so. The Scots are not seen as "other", merely as funny northern Geordies. If there is a scale of racial dislike that goes from 1 to 10 the Asians in Uganda would have got a 9 under Amin but the Scots in Britain merely score 2, if that. Anything under 5 is probably not worth worrying about, anyway, particularly if, as I have, you have recorded 8 on tape. After such an experience it is difficult to have any time for P.C. snivellers who go on about "sensitivity". Had Grocer Heath not allowed the Ugandan Asians to come to Britain, Amin would have killed them all. Uganda's loss has been Britain's gain.

Still, most of those seeing the film will never have been to Uganda and will not carry this baggage with them. Even the grand-children of Uganda's Asian dukawallahs, now professional men and women living in prosperous exile as dentists (BDS Glasgow) and accountants, will see it as a film about the Scots and not resent their absence from the story. So short is human memory that some of them now vote SNP and when watching the film may even identify with the wretched Garrigan.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations, a eulogy of the Scottish sense of humour and Scottish achievements during that country's brief span of greatness. He was a regular contributor to the Indian journals Quest and to New Quest when they were edited by the late, great A. B. Shah.

To read A S H Smyth' take on The Last King of Scotland, see: The Last King of Scotland is not really telling it like it was, argues A S H Smyth.

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The heavy spicing of humour in the article should not distract the reader from the horror of the incidents herein described.

But the attack on redheads makes me uneasy. Is the learned professor carrying on the vendetta of the Heddlu Gogledd Cymru against Anne Robinson by other means?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 18, 2007 08:18 PM

Are you simple?? This film is amazing with a good plot and the perfect mix of comedy and tradegy that allows the horror of the situation to sink in with bitter-sweet simplicity. The fact that no Africans play leading roles should not distract from the importance that a film such as this can play in raising issues and educating people that would otherwise remain ignorant. How much of this article is actually a review and how much is it an egotistical rendition of your own life experience??!

Posted by: Grace Coleman at May 27, 2007 10:44 PM

Did someone in Scotland hurt your feelings? Uh-oh, someone got the heave ho by a Scottish lass! You might need to deal with that.

That's quite a rambling off-center screed of personal issues you've placed around this movie. And American cultural imperialism? It was a movie made by Brits and Yanks primarily for Brits and Yanks, I'm not sure the African market is looking for the Idi Amin story any time soon.

Finally, on the subject of ugly Scots, I don’t think the Ugandans will be passing around Christie Davies pin-up posters any time soon:

Yikes! The sea captain beard look must have made a comeback in Reading!

Tim Campbell (not Idi's son, I promise)
Lexington, Kentucky

Posted by: Tim Campbell at December 30, 2007 07:03 AM
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