Film of the Week: The Great Dictator (1940)

Charlie Chaplin as "The Great Dictator"

Charlie Chaplin as “The Great Dictator”

“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!”

This closing speech by a Jewish barber pretending to be the most ruthless dictator the world had ever seen, Adenoid Hynkel, is enacted so poignantly that it left a very big impression on me. The emotions bursting from Charlie Chaplin’s seams – very evident from his hand gestures, enunciations and facial expressions makes you want to believe every meaning intended by the speech.

Set in the context of the period between the World Wars, a clear parody of Adolf Hitler emerges in Charlie Chaplin’s Hynkel. The movie was written, directed and produced by Charlie Chaplin in 1940, in the beginning of WWII. The world then was not yet exposed to the atrocities committed by the SS and the Nazi soldiers in the many concentration camps set up all across the German countryside where silent annihilation of the Jews, gypsies, blacks, the disabled – and any other “perversions” from the Aryan race was carried out.

The movie follows an unnamed soldier fighting for the Central Powers (essentially the alliance between Germany, the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary) in WWI who at the end of the war, that they eventually lose, loses his memory and is sent to hospital. Meanwhile, Adenoid Hynkel, the notorious dictator rises to power and is keenly propagating his anti-Semitic agenda. They look alike, the movie arrives at the event where the two switch positions comically – with the slightly satiric touch that Chaplin elegantly blends in. The movie is funny but it makes you cringe too.

ChaplinEventually this unnamed Jewish barber who is now mistaken to be the ruthless Hynkel attempts to bring in a sense of compassion to the image of the Great Dictator. The climax speech is one of the greatest moments in the entire movie – his call for compassion, to end the war, to do away with greed – is dramatic.

The movie is highly entertaining as is the job of a Chaplin film, but it’s one of those rare gems which believes in subtly putting the message across. The movie, the scenes and the message stay with you for long after the 124 minutes of running time ends.

In the era of talkies, Chaplin was known for continuing to stick with silent films. This movie is also unique in the sense that it was Chaplin’s first ever talkie and his most successful.


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