- Written, Directed, Produced, and Scored by Charlie Chaplin
- October 15, 1940 (New York City) / October 31, 1940 (US)
A European dictator tries to expand his empire while his Jewish barber doppelganger tries to avoid persecution under his regime.
The Great Dictator is undoubtedly a classic piece of film. It is a satire of serious threats of the time in which it was made. Specifically Hitler and to a lesser degree Benito Mussolini. Even someone with a passing knowledge of the time will pick up on what Charlie Chaplin was going after. In this film Chaplin tackles antisemitism, fascism, and Nazism. This was only the second Hollywood film of the time to tackle Hitler with You Nazty Spy! by the Three Stooges preceding it.
There was no subtlety in what Chaplin put on screen here. Rather he was very direct. The parody names are easily identifiable on who or what they are mocking despite their intended silliness. Adenoid Hynkel (Charlie Chaplin), the Phooey of Tomainia, is a parody of Adolf Hitler. Benzino Napaloni (Jack Oakie), the Diggaditchie of Bacteria, is a parody of Benito Mussolini as well as a reference to French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte. Garbitsch (Henry Daniell) is a parody of Joseph Goebbels. Herring (Billy Gilbert) is a parody of Hermann Göring.
Everything in this film from the costuming to the character names to the names of locations is the thinnest of veiled jabs at and commentary on real world events. This is comedic and very satirical to the point of trying to humiliate all those involved. Chaplin did not hold back.
What helps The Great Dictator film endure though is the speech at the end. It is rather timeless and applies as much to the 1940s as it does today. The events that lead to it are comical. The Jewish barber (Charlie Chaplin), who is never named in the narrative, is sent away to a concentration camp. Via a case of mistaken the barber is set free while Hynkel in civilian dress while out hunting is arrested and sent away.
The speech is poignant and among the finer ones ever recorded. The Barber makes a plea for brotherhood and goodwill. It is a celebration of freedom and kindness. This speech hits so much harder in hindsight given the events that followed. The rest of the film is good but not great and in my opinion is proof that a good ending can really make a film.
That’s not to call The Great Dictator bad but I do think the film could have been better. First I felt that over two hours was a bit long for the story. I think that something moments could have been eliminated or shortened. Chaplin had a lot he wanted to say here and he put it all in and that is a weakness that any powerful filmmaker can face. Chaplin was huge in the day and the likelihood that someone would say “No” to him was not significant.
I applaud Chaplin though for taking on something that at the time was so important. Much of what he put into this film came from those he knew living in Germany though even they did not know the true extent of what was going on.
The tone of The Great Dictator can fluctuate during the course of the film. It goes from the comedy that Chaplin is known for to a more serious vibe and the switch can be abrupt. This was a parody and should have kept the tone lighter throughout.
The acting though is great. And many of the jokes still land today even if they have been copied numerous times since. Speaking of which this is my first time viewing this movie and I did notice a few things that I have seen elsewhere. Chaplin is considered one of the greats and it’s not surprising that people would copy his work.
The Great Dictator is a flawed but very enjoyable film. Despite the issues it has it is worth a view because it is in the end entertaining. This is something you should see!
2 thoughts on “The Great Dictator”
Your post is further proof that, while I feel I’ve watched all sorts of movies from all sorts of periods, there are some considerable gaps. I dare say we all have lists of films that are considered great or classics which we haven’t gotten around to yet, or not had the opportunity to see (that last point is sadly valid even today with streaming/downloads/physical releases etc; there are some films I would like to see which are unavailable in the UK and region-locking or cost prohibits importing).
Case in point: Charlie Chaplin has never really appealed to me, and I doubt ever will. But his film The Great Dictator is one I know should watch if only because of its reputation in film history…and yet to be brutally honest, I also think some films are of their time and for their time, and in the case of this film, I doubt that it might ever work for me. I adore Citizen Kane but know it leaves some people cold. And while I adore 2001, I know I can never appreciate or experience the impact it must have had on audiences of 1968, no matter how good it is on Blu-ray or 4K UHD.
Mind, anyone who doesn’t ‘get’ Blade Runner are patently idiots, lol.
I agree that some films are a product of their time and I feel are remember because they resonated so well in that moment.
On Blade Runner, I have encountered people that think the sequel is better. Talk about being wrong!