This month marks the 70th anniversary of the release of Charlie Chaplin’s first all-talking motion picture, The Great Dictator, which was a comedy that satirized the very un-funny Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. While praised for hilariously ridiculing the Nazis and bringing the world’s attention to the plight of the Jews in Europe, The Great Dictator has its share of critics.
Chaplin plays the dual roles of a poor Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomania. The portrayal was a very thinly-disguised slam against Hitler, who looked remarkably like Chaplin’s character “The Little Tramp” in real life. (The similarities didn’t end there: Chaplin and Hitler were both born in poverty only four days apart to weak mothers and alcoholic fathers.)
Chaplin took a huge gamble with the film, investing much of his own money. He made it to bring attention to the Europeans, especially the Jews, who he felt were being overlooked by an isolationist America where many feared the film would stir up trouble with the Axis Powers. Chaplin wrote it in the late 1930s and began filming just two weeks after Germany invaded Poland, setting off World War II. By the time it was released, the Nazi blitzkrieg had laid waste to much of Europe and France had fallen.
It turned out to be a huge hit, especially in Chaplin’s native England, which got a much-needed morale boost from the film. Despite the fact that it was banned in all the countries that were controlled by Germany at the time, it became Chaplin’s most successful film. (Hitler secured a copy which he watched on at least two occasions.)
The Great Dictator has its share of hilarious scenes, like Hynkel’s dance with the globe, and the “duel” in the barber chairs between Hynkel and fellow dictator Napaloni (a caricature of Mussolini) to see who can rise the highest.
But the scene that is most often scorned by critics is at the film’s conclusion when the barber, disguised as Hynkel, delivers a 747-word attack on totalitarianism. Many felt the speech to be too wordy and preachy, and definitely not the way to end a comedy.
I personally love it.
The speech is a “diatribe for peace” – a timeless stirring plea for humanity in the midst of insanity. In fact, I believe it’s one of the great wartime speeches in history. Here is an excerpt:
“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.”
For a man who spent so much of his career being silent, this is pretty good stuff.
Here is a link to a recent video that juxtaposes Chaplin’s speech with video of the freedom movements currently taking place in the Middle East.