The Great Dictator (1940 – DVD)

“Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed”

‘The Great Dictator’ starts like any other Charlie Chaplin film with a brilliantly comic prologue featuring his character’s haphazard attempts to serve his country. One scene has him unaware that he is flying upside down. The puzzled look on Charlie’s face as he observes his watch seemingly dangle up out of his pocket is priceless.  The film changes to something altogether more political after the inevitable plane crash, when Charlie’s character (In this film, a Jewish Barber, instead of a tramp) emerges from years in hospital to find his country in the grip of Fascism.  To put the film in context, Chaplin began filming the week after the outbreak of WWII and released the film a year before the US joined the Allied cause.  It’s amusing that America’s first salvo against Hitler should be a satirical one launched by its greatest comedian.

Chaplin doesn’t shy away from showing the awful brutality meeted out to the Jewish neighbourhood by the Fascists.  The horrors of the real Kristallnacht must have been the impetus behind the story as Chaplin began writing the film almost immediately after.  His Barber emerges from hospital still suffering from slight amnesia so merely sees the stormtroopers as petty bullies and stands up to them, as the rest of the neighbourhood initially looks on, too frightened by what they experienced during the Barber’s absence to resist.  So he when the word ‘Jew’ is crudely painted on his shop window he wipes it off as you would any normal grafitti, not realising it’s dreadful significance.  Chaplin then contrasts the Barber’s quiet dignity and humanity with his second character, that of Dictator Adenoid Hynkel.  Obviously the similarities between Hitler and Charlie’s moustaches was a big inspiration behind Hynkel.

Chaplin was initially reluctant to use sound in his pictures and ‘The Great Dictator’ was his first full talkie.  He needn’t have worried because with Hynkel’s hilarious nonsensical-germanic-sounding-pig-snorting rants he immediately proved himself the master of sound based comedy.  In one famous shot the microphone actually bends away as if to escape the rabid guff that Hynkel is shouting into it.  Chaplin’s portrayal of the pompous, vain, lunatic Hynkel was barely a parody at all, it was the truth.  It’s a tragedy that the German people didn’t see what a laughable figure Hitler really was years before.  ‘The Great Dictator’ manages a rare thing of being both an achingly funny comedy and a searing political statement by Hollywood’s most famous star.


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