Jakob’s From Fact to Film: The Truth Behind “The Last King of Scotland”


Directed by Kevin Macdonald, The Last King of Scotland is an adaptation of Author Giles Forden’s novel. While this film is a book adaptation, it also has an incredible amount of historical accuracy to the source material. Set in Uganda between the years 1971 and 1976, this film centers around the newly, self-appointed President of Uganda, Idi Amin, played by Forest Whitaker, and his relationship with his confidant and personal physician Nicholas Garrigan, played by James McAvoy.

The first question many people ask when they see the film is, were these people actually real? President Idi Amin was indeed a real person who took over the country of Uganda through a coup d’état against incumbent president Milton Obote. Born sometime between 1923 and 1928, Amin was abandoned by his father and recruited to the British colonial army, where he served for eight years. Afterwards, Amin quickly rose to prominence in Ugandan politics and military, eventually becoming commander of the Ugandan army. While President Milton Obote was on a foreign trip, Amin took his opportunity and seized control of the country for himself. He would rule Uganda from 1971 to 1979 before being overthrown himself.

*Spoilers Ahead*

The protagonist of the film, Nicholas Garrigan on the other hand, is a completely different story. He is entirely fictional and created by Giles Forden for his novel. Garrigan is, however, based on, and can be considered an amalgamation of, several different real people. The closest person that Garrigan could be based on is British soldier Bob Astles, though he was a businessman in his 50’s and had already lived in Uganda for 30 years before the coup. In the film, Garrigan leaves Scotland for Uganda to try and make a difference as a doctor, but during this he gets swept into Amin’s inner circle. Bob Astles on the other hand, leaves Britain for Uganda for adventure and actively involves himself in Ugandan politics. Astles becomes Amin’s most trusted advisor. He also seems to be analogous to Ugandan doctor Mbalu-Mukasa who has an affair with one of Amin’s wives, like Garrigan does in the third act.

Throughout this blog entry, I have shown that this film is only loosely based around historical events and is not an exact historical retelling of any one event. Now I will switch gears, and  show where exactly it is historically accurate. The film begins in 1971 when Garrison arrives in Uganda to work in a small town as one of its only physicians. As Garrison arrives, Amin performs his coup against the government and takes over. This would mean that these events both coincide and take place on January 25, 1971. Later, Garrison takes control of a car crash, which impresses the president and causes meetings between the two. When Garrison reveals that he is Scottish, Amin shows that he admires the Scottish greatly for their fight against British oppression. After a few visits, Aman makes Garrison his personal physician and confidant. Historically, none of this actually happened other than Amin’s display of admiration for the Scottish.

During Amin’s reign he actually did name himself the last king of Scotland, giving both the novel and movie it’s name. Amin also bestowed the title of Conqueror of the British Empire on himself after they had broken off diplomatic relations in 1977. By the end of his rule Amin received the full title of “His Excellency, President for life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and the Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.”

In the third act of the film, Garrigan enters an affair with Amin’s youngest wife and, to her dismay, she becomes pregnant. When Amin discoverer’s this, he has her killed in such a gruesome way that I do not feel comfortable describing it in this blog. Just know that her fate is disgustingly accurate to what would happen to women in Uganda for infidelity. Garrigan himself is also tortured and left to die, which is another horrible example of the cruelty dealt under Idi Amin. Garrigan, however, is saved by a local doctor and is lucky enough to be able to escape thanks to another historical event, Operation Entebbe.

On June 27th, an Air France plane with over 200 passengers is hijacked by Palestinian militants and is taken to Uganda, who supported the Palestinian cause. This resulted in a counter-terrorist hostage-rescue by the Israel Defense Force. After releasing over 48, non-Israeli passengers on June 30th, the IDF attacked Uganda and saved all but one hostage, who was killed beforehand, and destroyed over 1/4th of the Ugandan air force. Garrigan was able to escape through the former hostage release.

The movie, however, does skip over one of the most prominent and terrible fact about Amin’s rule. His presidency was covered in the blood of hundreds of thousands of Ugandans. He committed genocide upon hundreds of tribes in the country and killed around 300,000 civilians. The film decides to gloss over this fact throughout much of the film and only acknowledges it during the final text crawl at the end.

Amin was deposed from power after declaring war on Tanzania and consequently losing the capital city of Kampala to their army on April 11th 1979. He converted to Islam in order to flee to Saudi Arabia where he lived the rest of his life, until dying of kidney failure on July 19th, 2003.

Bob Astles, Garrigan’s real life counterpart, was imprisoned when Tanzanian forces defeated Amin for six and a half years, before being returned to London in 1985. He defended his actions as Amin’s advisor until his death on December 29th 2012.

The film itself is a great look inside the life of Idi Amin. Forest Whitaker won an Oscar for Best actor and absolutely carries the film. The movie itself has been both critically and commercially acclaimed. If you ever get the opportunity, I most certainly recommend watching it.

— Jakob Kagay, Film Blogger


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