Film Review: The Great Dictator (1940)
If there is one person who can serve as an iconic image for the entire history of cinema, it is Sir Charles Chaplin. British actor and director made not only lasting contribution to the Seventh Art in early Hollywood, but also became first truly global star with his popular silent comedies that, through their visual humour, easily transcended national and language barriers. Somewhat ironically, Chaplin’s commercially most successful, most critically acclaimed and, to a certain degree, best know film is The Great Director, 1940 satirical comedy which was not only the first true sound film in Chaplin’s career but also the first in which Chaplin’s fans could hear their favourite actor speak.
The film, also written and directed by Chaplin, was clearly inspired by the disturbing current events that would escalate into Second World War. The plot begins in 1918, at the end of First World War. Chaplin plays the protagonist, unnamed Jewish barber who fights as soldier for fictional country of Toimania and during chaotic battle manages to save life of pilot named Schultz (played by Reginald Gardiner). The protagonist was injured during the rescue and spent next two decades in hospital suffering from amnesia. When he finally leaves hospital and returns to his old shop, he sees that his country has changed beyond recognition – after being defeated during the war, it went through economic crisis, riots and finally ended being ruled by Adenoid Hynkel (also played by Chaplin), fascist dictator whose brutal regime embodied in uniformed stormtroopers crushed all traces of democracy and liberty and made life miserable for Jews. As protagonist tries to adapt to new and frightening realities in Jewish ghetto, he meets Hannah (played by Paulette Goddard), beautiful woman from neighbourhood who helps him resist stormtroopers. He escapes persecution thanks to Schultz, now high ranking official in Hynkel’s regime, who ultimately turns against Hynkel. In the meantime, Hynkel dreams of invading and conquering neighbouring country of Osterlich and, in order to do so, wants to sign treaty with Benzino Napaloni (played by Jack Oakie), fascist dictator of Bacteria.
If there is one word that should describe The Great Dictator, it is “anti-fascist”. This is the best known and arguably the most important anti-fascist film, at least from the era when being anti-fascist wasn’t as safe and fashionable as it is today and when actually confronting fascism meant taking serious risks. Chaplin was clearly disturbed with the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe and its most extreme and dangerous embodiment in Nazi Germany. His motive for making the film, however, wasn’t strictly political. The Great Dictator was very personal film from Chaplin. Inspired by casual remark about physical resemblance between him and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, famous actor recognised additional and disturbing similarities – both men were born almost exactly as the same time, both men had similar physical stature and wore similar moustache, both men rose from poverty, both men were masters in manipulating masses and in 1930s Chaplin and Hitler were the most famous persons in the world. Chaplin used that similarity to create one of the most famous and effective impersonations of the world. Character of Hynkel was based after careful study of Hitler’s speeches and public appearances; Chaplin altered it in the comical way in order to make Hynkel/Hitler look like a pathetic buffoon who hides deep personal insecurity with his grandiose speeches and verbal violence. When Chaplin tried to sound like Hitler, the result was somewhat less impressive – speaking gibberish with few German words thrown in might have sounded funny in 1930s or early 1940s, but not today, or at least for the audience accustomed to characters speaking German in cinema. Chaplin was more successful in famous scene during which Hynkel plays with globe and which also benefited from Chaplin as composer of score (co-written by Meredith Wilson) inspired by Wagner, composer who was also admired both by Chaplin and Hitler.
Chaplin played Hitler in this film, but he also played himself, clearly setting up unnamed Jewish barber as noble and almost heroic protagonist. Although Chaplin went on record of saying that his iconic Tramp character won’t be used in sound films, there is decades-long debate about whether the barber and Tramp are the same person. In couple of scenes Chaplin appears in Tramp’s clothes, but it could be interpreted as some sort of fan service. More connection to Chaplin’s silent films can be found in the use of slapstick and physical comedy. Chaplin, whether through physical comedy or verbal tricks, delivers great performance. He is helped by the rest of cast which includes Paulette Goddard, his wife at the time, who has good chemistry with her husband, although their characters’ relationship remains platonic. Henry Daniell and Billy Gilbert are good as Hynkel’s henchmen Garbitch and Herring (clearly modelled after Hitler’s top lieutenants Goebbels and Göring), while Jackie Oakie has blast as character modelled after Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini in the performance that would get him nominated for Oscar for Best Suppporting Actor.
The Great Dictator is Chaplin’s best known, but it is also his most controversial film. Controversies began even during its production in late 1930s, when most people United States believed that the global politics doesn’t concern them and many Hollywood studios were wary of alienating Germany and its allies. This was one of the reasons why The Great Dictator used fictional country and personalities instead of Germany and Hitler. The film’s subject, became even more relevant with the start of Second World War in Europe September 1939, which coincided with start of principal photography; when principal photography ended, Hitler has conquered France and became master of most of European continent, making the film’s subject more relevant. However, Hitler’s reign of terror over hundreds of millions of people gave unimaginably grim context to the theme of The Great Dictator and made many critics to question whether it was appropriate to cover it in comedy. Chaplin would later give arguments against it by claiming that he would have never made the film if he had known the true scope of Nazi atrocities and what they would do in Holocaust. During the war itself, however, The Great Dictator became very effective tool of Allied propaganda, becoming extremely popular in USA, Britain and France immediately after the liberation. Hitler’s regime, naturally, banned the film, although apocryphal stories tell that Hitler himself arranged private copies for himself and even watched film twice.
The biggest controversy, and one that lasts to this day, is whether The Great Dictator is as good as its reputation and whether it truly stood the test of time. While it is funny and certainly effective in its condemnation of fascism, the film is at times stylistically uneven, with some jokes that don’t work and look dated. But the most criticism is reserved for ending, which uses simple plot device of mistaken identity almost like an afterthought. It looks like Chaplin’s desperate way to provide some sort of happy ending to the story that was getting increasingly desperate in real life. The result is the famous speech in which the barber, after being mistaken by Hynkel, gives opportunity to address his supporters and world, pleads for tolerance, democracy and peace. Although the speech seems out of place in this film and adds to stylistic incoherence, it represents true voice of Chaplin who, with more clarity than any of his other films, expresses his deeply humanistic values. While the film’s subject might have ended as sad chapter of 20th Century, what Chaplin says in the end still has merit and relevance for our world.
RATING: 8/10 (+++)
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