The Last King of Scotland


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

This film reminds me of a type of film which was popular in the 30s, then again in the 50s and 60s: the period adventure/drama in which a completely fictional set of characters interact with well known historical figures against a sweeping backdrop of memorable historical events. Of course the film world didn't invent the concept. When you get right down to it, this format has been the basis of some of the greatest fictional works in history. War and Peace, perhaps the greatest novel of all, is such a work, as are The Three Musketeers, Gone With the Wind, and A Tale of Two Cities, to cite a few among many possible examples.

More specifically, The Last King of Scotland reminds me in many ways of an older film with a similar title: The Man Who Would Be King. Both films are great yarns about ordinary Europeans who find themselves getting in over their heads when they attain a surprisingly lofty position inside a developing culture. Of course, The Last King of Scotland is a modernization of the old format with new filmmaking ideas in a new world. The most important new rule has been dictated by the fact that these historical characters are within our recent memory and have been vividly recorded by the electronic media. When The Man in The Iron Mask portrayed historical characters, the actors were free to improvise wildly, and the authors were free to take virtually any stance for or against the historical characters, since few people today care whether Louis XIV is portrayed sympathetically, particularly when he is a background character. The rules for historical drama are different when dealing with characters from the late 20th century. People do care whether Hitler is portrayed sympathetically, and people know exactly what he looked and sounded like. The electronic record places a new set of demands on authors who must spin the non-fictional characters accurately, and on actors who must look and sound like people we have actually seen and heard. The pressure on accuracy was even greater in this film because the African dictator Idi Amin is not a background character, but a personal friend of the fictional character, and his co-star. To the great credit of the writers and actor Forest Whitaker, the film's portrayal of Amin doesn't conflict in any way with our perception of the real man, thus freeing us to enjoy the story.

And what a story it is. A humble Scottish country doctor decides that he doesn't want to spend the rest of his life in a boring practice with his staid old dad, so he spins a globe, stops it with his finger, and goes to the place where his finger happens to be pointing. Uganda is the prize winner, and the apolitical Scotsman soon gets an education in African power politics as he works in a clinic there. A chance occurrence vaults him into an unexpected role as Idi Amin's personal physician, from which role he is soon advising the strongman on health matters that affect the entire nation. Amin is a paranoid man who trusts few people, and the doctor helps him out of few tough scrapes, so when the dictator sees that the doctor is an honest and dedicated man with no private agenda, he is quick to take the Scot's advice on many non-medical matters as well, including security and public relations. The humble twenty-something white man soon finds himself the second most powerful man in the country, and enjoys that status ... for a while.

Then he runs into that whole pesky Dr. Faustus revelation that deals with the devil rarely work out.

The party comes to a conclusion when the doctor finally has to stop ignoring the evidence around him and accept the fact that his benefactor is both corrupt and brutal. He tenders his resignation, and packs his bags. At this point the tone of the film makes a 180 degree turn. The doctor learns that the club he has joined is like the mafia. Once in, it's almost impossible to leave. Furthermore, Amin no longer trusts him because of his attempt to leave, which seems like disloyalty. Amin refuses to accept the resignation, takes away the doctor's British passport, and  issues him an Ugandan one, thus demonstrating that his life is owned by the dictator. From this point onward the doctor's life descends deeper and deeper into hell. The film becomes a nail-biting thriller about his attempt to extricate himself from the situation he has created, a predicament made far worse by his having impregnated the dictator's youngest wife. Since the film is a modern one and not a leftover from 1960s Hollywood, the terrifying situations he faces are portrayed in graphically horrifying detail. I went with my daughter, and she was looking away a lot during this movie, later commenting that it was more tense and horrifying than any horror film she had ever seen, especially since it all seemed real.

My daughter found the film too intense, but I take her reaction as a sign of extremely effective filmmaking. This is a very powerful movie. The set-up phase is interesting enough, but I fidgeted a bit until the real movie began - when the tension started between the doctor and the dictator. From the time of his resignation, the doctor is mired in a hopeless quagmire of  situations from which it seems he can never escape. He feigns allegiance to Amin, all the while plotting to escape or perhaps even to poison the dictator before he himself can be killed. The suspense is maintained brilliantly, and the odds against him keep increasing, particularly after he is identified as a poisoner and the real father of the dictator's baby. Can he get out of Uganda? Well, if you want the answer to that question, you have to see the movie ...

... and it's well worth it.


Commentary by director Kevin Macdonald

Deleted scenes with optional commentary by Kevin Macdonald

Documentary: Capturing Idi Amin

Forest Whitaker Featurette

Fox Movie Channel Presents: Casting Session- The Last King of Scotland


Mr Whitaker is expected to win the Oscar for Best Actor, since he has won every other acting prize this year. The only thing which might stop him would be a sentimental Academy nod toward the superannuated Peter O'Toole, perhaps the greatest film performer without an acting Oscar.

Apart from Whitaker's nomination, the film received no other Oscar nods, but it fared better with the BAFTA group, earning five nods including the grand prize for "best film" as well as "best adapted screenplay."

3 James Berardinelli (of 4 stars)
80 British Consensus  (of 100)
89 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
74 (of 100)


7.9 IMDB summary (of 10)
B+ Yahoo Movies


Box Office Mojo. At publication date it has grossed about $10 million, and a comparable amount overseas. Maximum distribution: 540 theaters. 


  • Full frontal and rear nudity from James McAvoy in two scenes.
  • Bare bum from Kerry Washington in an apres-sex scene
  • There are several topless dancers in a lavish poolside party


Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


The critics loved it,  and I am surprised that it did not do better at the box office, because it is not an art film. It's a good adventure story from start to finish, and the second half is a tremendous thriller that kept knots in my stomach. If the stars had been Denzel and Cruise, I think it would have been a hit. (Although not as good a movie.)