The Great Dictator (1940) Director: Charlie Chaplin
Throughout his career, Charlie Chaplin always seemed to be ahead of the curve. When he first landed in Hollywood in 1914 fresh off the heels of Fred Karno’s traveling vaudeville troupe, moving pictures were just beginning to take hold. Then just as six-reel feature-length narrative films became an expanding novelty, Chaplin released The Kid in 1921. Then he made The Gold Rush in 1926, which hailed the coming explosion of the Western genre. The death of the silent era was met with Chaplin’s The Circus in 1928, a film which ends on a somber note as a traveling circus packs up and carries on without its most beloved little performer; and this was followed with Chaplin’s masterpiece swan-song of silent cinema, a bittersweet contemplation upon the medium of visual artistry in 1931’s City Lights. Chaplin’s Little Tramp character would make his final official appearance in 1936’s Modern Times, a satire for the ages in which the security of imprisonment is preferable to the harsh cruelty of our modern world; but Chaplin would save his most blistering and acerbic satire in 1940 as the world hung in the balance during World War II.
The Great Dictator was Charlie Chaplin’s first true talking picture. It memorably features a version of the Little Tramp character, albeit a talking “little fellow” (technically the last time he would ever grace the silver screen). This was an extraordinary film for its indictment of the Third Reich and other rapidly growing fascist movements around the world. Chaplin’s stance was as precocious as it was courageous. Taking a stand against Hitler was something Hollywood was generally all too reluctant to take at the time. It was an extraordinary risk for Chaplin to produce this film at a time when most Americans were not fully prepared to join the war in Europe, much less indict Hitler as history’s greatest monster (the United States did not declare war until 1941). The Great Dictator production coincided with the expanding Nazi shadow over Europe. Chaplin began work on the film in 1938 when the Nazi’s annexed Austria (amusingly called “Osterlich” in the film), and The Great Dictator was released a mere three months prior to the Nazi invasion of Paris. The satire is as rich, potent, biting as ever and as such it was banned in many fascist-leaning parts of the world: Germany, Italy, and Spain; meanwhile in America, Chaplin was investigated by the FBI for possible ties to communism (at the time Hitler was more an ally, or at least not wholly a threat to the prevailing American commitment to isolationism). In particular, Chaplin’s rousing comments at the conclusion of the film raised more than a few eyebrows at the thought that he might be a covert pinko commie, or at least according to J. Edgar Hoover. The Great Dictator later became one of the chief reasons Chaplin was exiled from the United States.
“This is a story of a period between two World Wars – an interim in which Insanity cut loose. Liberty took a nose dive, and Humanity was kicked around somewhat”
The film opens with a prologue. We begin on the Western Front in 1918. An unnamed Jewish Private (Charlie Chaplin) fighting for a nation modeled on Germany (called “Tomainia” so-named for a type of food poisoning) saves the life of a wounded pilot named Commander Schultz (Reginald Gardiner). They commandeer his plane but wind up flying upside down in an amusing gag as Commander Schultz keeps passing out. The plane crashes and they receive a cable that Tomainia has lost the war. The Private is carried off to a hospital, struggling with amnesia.
Twenty years pass and the Private leaves the hospital to return to his profession as a barber in the ghetto. However, the ghetto is now under the governance of Commander Schultz, the Barber’s former war-time compatriot, and the Toumainian government now lies in the grip of a rising dictator named Adenoid Hynkel (also played by Chaplin). “Heil Hynkel” roar the crowds, amidst a series of frantic and absurd saluting and comical goose-stepping. Instead of the symbol of a swastika Hynkel rules under the icon of a Double Cross (another amusing gag).
The Barber falls in love with his neighbor, Hannah (Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s third wife who also appeared in Modern Times), and at the same time his barbershop is dusty and empty. Meanwhile the careless, harsh, slapstick Toumaisian enforcement “stormtrooper” police roam the ghetto streets breaking windows and harassing Jewish denizens. The Barber is very nearly lynched but he is saved when Commander Schultz steps in and recalls their time in the war together.
Meanwhile Adenoid Hynkel busies himself in his palace: frantically signing papers, ordering more poison gas, constantly being interrupted while having his likeness sculpted/painted, conversing with his loyal Secretary Garbitsch (or “Garbage” in a parody of Goebbels), meeting with his Mussolini-esque counterpart Benzini Napaloni (Jack Oakie) the fascist ruler of “Bacteria” (we are also treated to one of the most iconic scenes in the film in which Hynkel dances around his room lobbing a globe into the air). Further crackdowns in the ghetto ensue and the Barber joins a plot to attack Hynkel which ultimately lands him in a concentration camp. However in a ruse reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor Lost or Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper a boating accident causes an amusing reversal of fortunes as the Barber is mistaken for Hynkel and vice versa as the Barber escapes the concentration camp dressed as an officer. At the end, Chaplin (I say Chaplin here because these are his personal words) delivers some of the most rousing and soul-enriching rhetoric ever committed to film while addressing the people of Tomainia:
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible: Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each others’ happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world, there’s room for everyone and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed.
We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men, cries out for universal brotherhood for the unity of us all. Even now, my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.
To those who can hear me, I say: ‘Do not despair.’ The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.
Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes. Men who despise you, enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder! Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate, the unloved and the unnatural. Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!
In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke [Verse 21], it is written – the kingdom of God is within man, not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power. Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security.
By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill their promise. They never will! Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite! (Cheers from the assembled masses)
Hannah, can you hear me? Wherever you are, look up, Hannah! The clouds are lifting! The sun is breaking through! We are coming out of the darkness into the light! We are coming into a new world, a kindlier world, where men will rise above their hate, their greed and brutality. Look up, Hannah! The soul of man has been given wings and at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow! Into the light of hope! Into the future, the glorious future that belongs to you, to me, and to all of us. Look up, Hannah! Look up!”Charlie Chaplin
In his later years, Chaplin commented on how The Great Dictator could only be funny now without knowing the truth about the Nazi horrors. Even the object of ridicule has its limits, I suppose. At the time of its release Chaplin had staked his reputation on The Great Dictator, including the Little Tramp character and $1.5M of his own money, and as an artist it paid off, yielding dividends that continue to this day, however The Great Dictator ultimately came at the expense of his residency in America and marked the beginning of the end for Charlie Chaplin’s legendary film-making career.