A king without a kilt

The Last King of Scotland

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, February 26, 2007


The hottest trend on the London stage has been political drama offering fictionalized surmises about recent matters of state. Now, playwright Peter Morgan's two fly-on-the-wall historical screenplays have brought this genre to the Oscar races, with Helen Mirren and Forrest Whitaker winning most of the early acting awards for, respectively, "The Queen" and "The Last King of Scotland."

Whitaker first made his mark in a brief scene in Martin Scorsese's 1986 pool shark movie, "The Color of Money," as a gentle giant who out-hustles (and out-acts) Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. He later starred as doomed saxophonist Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood's "Bird" and directed the hit "Waiting to Exhale," but has been largely relegated to supporting roles too small for him.

The superstars who emerged in the 1930s, such as John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and Clark Gable, tended to be imposing six-footers (when that was an unusual height). Yet, even though the average American has gotten taller and fatter, leading men, such as Cruise, are now typically energetic little welterweights.

Whitaker finally enjoys a suitably beefy role in "Last King of Scotland" as the 1970s Ugandan dictator with the surrealist name, Idi Amin Dada. At a self-proclaimed 6'2" and 220 pounds, Whitaker is still smaller than the real Amin, who was the most entertaining of all the monsters of the 20th Century, a megalomaniacal cross between Joseph Stalin and Muhammad Ali. Sure, Idi was a semi-literate cannibal, but he was a likeable one.

Amin reveled in such self-bestowed titles as Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular. An admirer of his former Scottish officers in the King's African Rifles -- "I love everything about Scotland! ... Apart from red hair, which your women may find attractive but which in Africa is quite disgusting" -- Amin saw himself as the natural leader of a Caledonian independence uprising: "the Last Rightful King of Scotland."

Although Whitaker is the front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar, Amin technically is a supporting character. The fictional anti-hero protagonist (played well by young James McAvoy, who must be seven inches shorter and 80 pounds lighter than Whitaker) is a callow Scottish intern who, like so many of his ancestors who built the British Empire, flees dour Presbyterian boredom for some fun in the tropical sun. While working in Uganda in 1971 as a mission doctor, idly trying to seduce his boss's wife, he's called to bandage the injured Presidential wrist.

In Giles Foden's 1998 source novel, the Scottish doctor recalls, "I couldn't help feeling awed by the sheer size of him and the way … he radiated a barely restrained energy… I felt -- far from being the healer -- that some kind of elemental force was seeping into me." The doctor accepts Amin's impetuous offer to become his personal physician. He is soon advising Amin on policy, while trying to ignore the reports of political opponents being fed to the crocodiles, too mesmerized by the Big Man's outlandish charisma to flee.

"The Last King of Scotland" may be the best exploration yet of the Big Man syndrome, which, while most notorious for afflicting Africa, is hardly restricted to that continent. A Big Man's grandiose sense of entitlement assures him that he deserves to run things. What's odd is how often the rest of us, like McAvoy's doctor, agree with him, sometimes against our better instincts.

Big Men tend to be more masculine in physical and emotional traits like muscularity, self-confidence, and aggressiveness. Yet, as the film illustrates, one of the strangest paradoxes about Big Men is how feminine their minds can be. Whitaker's Amin displays what would be called female intuition in anyone who's not such a mountain of a man. He can read the doctor's secrets off his face, and then use his mercurial personality and verbal suppleness to charm and terrify him into obeying his sinister will, rather than simply going home to sane Scotland.

Scottish director Kevin MacDonald, best known for the documentary "Touching the Void" about a mountain climber who saved himself by cutting the rope from which his friend dangled, shot "Last King" on location in Uganda to look like a slightly cheesy 70s blaxploitation flick. It's not a great film, but it is a memorable one.

Rated R for some strong violence and gruesome images, sexual content, and language.


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