Catching up on homework: Well, we finally got around to slipping The Last King of Scotland into the DVD player. For some reason it took a while to bring ourselves to watch the bloody mayhem that must be a part of any movie about Idi Amin—and part of many films angling for Oscar.
At the beginning, there was the inevitable "inspired by true events" claim that is also mandatory for many movies angling for Oscar. After that unfolds a preposterous tale—and there are major spoilers to come—that left us wondering, exactly which true events inspired this? At a glance, the only facts in the film are that there was a deranged dictator named Idi Amin in a place called Uganda and, at one time, a hijacked Air France airliner landed there. *
The movie, based on an acclaimed novel by Giles Foden, tells the tale of a young Scottish doctor who finds himself a favorite of Idi Amin. The doctor can be rather plucky with Amin but generally ignores the growing evidence of the hideous truth. He busies himself with knocking up one of Amin's wives and then getting her an abortion. Unfortunately the boss is wise to him and has him hung by hooks thrust into his flesh. Far more fortunately, this hanging takes place at the airport at the exact moment when some Entebbe hostages are being released. A noble colleague sacrifices himself to free the bloodied doctor, who slinks off with the Entebbe hostages. His doomed savior admonishes him to tell the world of the outrages perpetrated in Uganda.
This series of astonishing events made us curious about the truth upon which the story was based. It was late, so we were left with Wikipedia. (In the Internet age, truth is easy to come by—right?) We found that the character of the young doctor was loosely based on a fellow named Bob Astles, who was neither Scottish nor a doctor. Twice married, he was an English adventurer who worked for Amin while running a pineapple farm as well as an aviation service. He later said, "I kept my eyes shut, I said nothing about what I saw, which is what they liked."
Astles eventually became the head of Amin's anti-corruption squad. "Until today, what Astles did or did not do during Amin's brutal tenure is conjecture," the Wikipedia article concludes. "He was feared, and considered by many to be a malign influence on the dictator; others thought he was a moderating presence."
It's imperative for novelists to invent, of course, but why does the film industry have a compulsion to palm off stories based on "true" events that are not just miles but light-years from the truth? Not that many people will see The Last King of Scotland—although more than might be expected, thanks to Forest Whitaker's almost assured best actor award. And how many of them will walk away thinking they've seen something that is more true than not?
The bottom line is that Hollywood has little respect for the truth. When he was making JFK, Oliver Stone became enraged when George Lardner, a Washington Post reporter who had covered the assassination of John Kennedy, got hold of a script and denounced the story as preposterous. It wasn't fair, Stone said, to judge an unfinished movie by a screenplay. Pressed about whether the misrepresentations in the screenplay wouldn't also be in the film, Stone said the movie would represent an "essential truth," and that adherence to actual fact was less important.
And there you have the Hollywood attitude—the movie version is the one that counts. The only time we can remember that this approach was stuffed up the industry's nose was when the 1999 film The Hurricane was attacked for misrepresenting facts about boxer Rubin Carter. That episode did not teach the industry caution. Instead, a lot of time and expense is devoted to re-creating the look and feel of a period with no regard to what actually occurred.
Many will defend the Hollywood way as an exercise of the artist's prerogative. And obviously there are many immortal stories told in historical settings. But it would have been peculiar if Thackeray suggested that Vanity Fair was "inspired by true events" because his characters were caught up in the Napoleonic Wars.
And, if you are dealing with something as momentous as the assassination of a president, you might want to stick to facts that were dramatic enough. If you have a strong story—a fiction about a young doctor and an African dictator—why not just embrace it for what it is and lose the tenuous "true story" claim? Diddling with history, as we've seen, can be a dangerous business. (link)